Barber Shop Chronicles is at The Lyceum Theatre Edinburgh (23rd October to 9th November 2019) and it is easy to see why this work by Inua Ellams and directed by Bijan Sheibani has already been such a huge success - two sell-out runs at the National Theatre in London and a world tour. This story, heard through the “confessional” of “The Barbers Shop” gives voices and viewpoints that many people might, for many reasons, not want to hear when spoken, but these are voices that need to be heard and words that need to be spoken. As always, truth is not absolute, but a variable depending upon who is speaking it and from what viewpoint.
There are three professions in this world that many men will confess their inner problems to – priests, bar-tenders, and barbers, and setting these interweaving stories into different barber shops and barber shop chairs provides this format with potentially endless stories. A good barber needs to be three things – good at cutting hair, good at listening and very discreet about the “confessions” that he hears. I say he as this is all set in the very traditional world of male barbers. It is a poignant note, however, that some of the stories that our barbers are hearing are potentially so painful that questions are being asked as to whether barbers should be given training as counsellors too.
If you are thinking of going to this show then you might want to get into the theatre and out of the bar a bit early as “The Barber Shop” is open for customers before the show starts. You get the opportunity to be on stage with the cast, sit in a barber’s chair and be one of their clients (don’t worry, no one is actually cutting hair). This very simple production ploy immediately immerses the audience in the world of the Lagos barber shop that our story is set in and breaks down barriers that can be there between audiences and performers, and the cast here are just so good with putting everyone at ease here.
Through our many stories that inter-weave in and out of each other, we get to hear the voices of “Africa” as seen through barbers and clients. This is at times like looking into a mirror and seeing a reflection that we may not want to look at as issues such as centuries of European colonialism, loss of culture and identity, the still open wounds left by slavery and many other issues are talked about. We also get a unique insight into the many issues of “African cultural identity”; how to bring up children, contemporary politics, and that great unifying religion of football all come into the topics for discussion.
Here on stage is the destruction of the most often held European misconception of there being an Africa as a sort of unified place where Africans live, and a reminder that Africa is not a country, but a massive continent made up of many different countries. We are also reminded that each of these countries has many different cultural and ethnic groups living within its borders and many languages are spoken (over 500 in Nigeria alone). There is no such person as an African any more than there is any such person as a European. We also get glimpses here too that there are many cultural differences and racial tensions within the continent of Africa.
There is a vibrancy to not only the music, but the cultural life of everyone on stage here as a talented cast turn a cold winter’s night outside in Edinburgh into a place of warmth, humour and vibrant colours on stage in the Lyceum Theatre. This show has no interval, but runs for a straight 1 hour and 45 minutes, and that is usually a long time to sit in a theatre seat, and a longer time for a show to hold an audience’s interest. There are real people’s stories here, stories that you want to hear, and some have resolutions, some don’t and that long sit in your seat becomes a surprisingly short one as the pace of this storytelling never slows.
By its very nature, with some of the subjects raised, this story production does run the risk of becoming at times a bit of a lecture on European colonialism of Africa over the centuries, but as a white European I have no common ground with many of the issues raised as I listen to the stories here, and absolutely no right to argue or dispute anyone’s points of view here. I should be prepared to listen and learn. What this show does so well though is deliver stories that are about human emotions too, human emotions that are common to everyone irrespective of culture or colour.
Much of the roots of this story are on two pillars – cultural identity, and land ownership, and the fact that Europeans came to Africa with Bibles in their hands when the people owned their lands, but that when they left, the people had the Bibles and the Europeans the land is a powerful and sad statement of fact.
Africa is a continent rich in mineral and other natural resources and those riches have attracted the greedy to it for centuries. That continues to this day with global conglomerates still fighting over its rich resources with little of the wealth derived from them staying with local people. Africans are angry and they have a right to be angry.
We have a large cast here, and to single out any for special mention would be unfair as everyone makes you believe that they are who they are on stage. Barber Shop Chronicles is a special work of theatre, so try and catch it if you get the opportunity.
Review by Tom King