Theatre Review: Barbershop Chronicles

The National Theatre continues its livestreams with a little difference. This week they’re showing a production with Leeds Playhouse of Inua Ellam’s smash Play. Will this be a close shave?

The story rotates around several small barbershops in Africa in Accra, Lagos, Johannesburg, Peckham, Harare and Kampala. They explore a variety of different topics the barbers and their customers discuss. What initially starts as banter turns into confessions of the truth about life, politics, parents, industry, football, religion and family. The events of the story take place over a single day.

This theatre piece is a type called Verbatim – a type of theatre where the writer collects his information based on firsthand information collected from the words/recordings of willing volunteers. This is reflected in the piece, which is carried entirely by the actors as there is only a very minimalist set and props. However, the actors carry the piece very well especially when they’re being observed “In the Round” by the audience.

One of the best things in this piece was the use of music for transitions which starts with commercial pop songs (such as “Shutdown” by Skepta) and later changing to more traditional African music including the cities in the lyrics. One of my favourite scenes is the discussion of Pigeon English (a more simplistic informal African style of English) even though it reminded me of a little bit of newspeak (The fictional language in 1984 by George Orwell).

This is definitely a piece which makes you think, something not many theatrical productions can do. There is also a bit of an irony unearthed in this piece with these people disposing the west (particularly Britain, but can you blame them?), but still enjoying a football game between Chelsea and Barcelona.

Unfortunately, whilst I think it works as a live theatrical experience, I’m not sure if live streaming the performance is as effective. Some of the things mentioned in the piece may make this a bit outdated to some people such as the use of music and the mentions of certain events, even though this makes it feel more grounded such as the mentions of Nelson Mandela’s death which was late 2015 with his funeral in early 2016.

Personally, I didn’t think the actors were the best individually and only worked as a collective. However one of the best characters was Samuel – one of the characters at the Johannesburg Barber’s – especially when he learns about his father.

Ultimately, this was a theatrical piece I could really sink my teeth into. Compared to a lot of the other stuff the National Theatre has shown, this is unique and stands out from the crowd as a piece that makes you think by throwing reality right into your face. This will challenge your views, however it is not entirely perfect in my opinion. I would still recommend checking it out.

By Stuart McComb

Feature image: Playbill

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