Sometimes something comes along that is so wonderfully staged and totally blows you away that somehow the critic in you wants to focus on not what’s so great about it but what it lacks in perfection. The Barber Shop Chronicles, currently playing to rapturous audiences at the Royal Exchange Theatre, is such a production. A wonderfully captivating show that is utterly beguiling and has everyone completely transfixed from the moment that they set foot in the auditorium. There are very few that can command such dedication and as such should be celebrated whilst it continues its run in Manchester.
Written by Inua Ellams, the Barber Shop Chronicles is exactly what you’d expect it to be. A tale full of testosterone, focusing on the male dominated world of barbershops, regaling us with stories full of warmth and humour from those that cut hair to those that have their hair cut. Yet, Ellams’ story is much more than that. It focuses on culture, politics and what it is to be African. A series of vignettes over the course of the production takes the watcher from Lagos, Johannesburg, Harare, Accra, Kampala and south London. It is an introspection into the world of masculinity and all that it entails and in particular the idea of fatherhood.
So, yes on the face of it, this is exactly what you’d expect. A melting pot of characters thrown together by some quirk of fate in a testosterone fuelled environment where there’s confessions, fights and tears.
Yet, I’m doing Ellams a disservice. This is wonderfully well written. As the series of scenes whirled through the various locations and styles it slowly began to dawn on me the clever interlinking between these scenes. A common thread that took us from one episode to the next, from one culture hotspot to the other, linking them through tales of football, fatherhood and fights. This kind of storytelling is the theatrical version of a Quentin Tarantino classic, mixing different styles within a short episodic format that has over the top characters and a bombastic musical soundtrack.
The Barber Shop is for me groundbreaking in that it is written by a man who does not hail from the usual background for playwrights, writing about people of backgrounds you’d not see on stage, being portrayed by a cast that are full of differing backgrounds, all being watched by a group of people whose backgrounds are those that have too long been absent from taking their seats and just enjoying this art form.
And it starts before we have even taken our seats, the pre show vibe with the cast is brilliant in displacing the old norms. There is an almost Mardi Gras feel to proceedings with people dancing and the music bellowing its rhythm and base. This is not the conventional way of starting a typical show at the Royal Exchange.
Of course it is wonderfully well acted. The cast shine through the words of Ellams, showing their love through their myriad of performances detailing black masculinity in all its forms. Making us laugh, making us angry and making us cry. The musical heartbeat in this is sublime and complements the stories from the various global venues.
So, lets rejoice whilst we can in a production that allows the stuffy doors to be blown wide open.
Verdict: A stunning production that challenges the conventional right from the start. Taking you seats has never been so much fun, watching a complex tale interwoven between six cities and characters galore, this is a tour de force that should be championed. Do not, I repeat, do not miss this!
What: The Barber Shop Chronicles
Where: Royal Exchange Manchester
When: 11th March 2019