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TIL Dec 2017

18 BARBER SHOP

18 BARBER SHOP CHRONICLES National Theatre Install yourself in the workaday seating of the Dorfman theatre for this riotous night of barbering, banter and African bloke-ishness, and you might feel glad you are separated from the stage by a slim railing (which might once have been a scaffolding pole.) Because look – right in front of you – there goes another hapless ‘customer’, led by the hand from their seat to a barber’s chair to have their locks playfully fluffed, scissors and trimmer dangerously close. Needless to say, no hair is harmed in this production of Inua Ellams’ new play. It is set in black barber shops from Peckham in south London to Lagos in Nigeria. It features some Pidgin and many richly evocative African accents in English, along with singing and dancing – there is even a choreographed set piece involving hairdressing aprons swung aloft like a matador’s cape. This is no musical however. At its heart is a thoughtful premise – that a barber shop is a space where men are pampered and restored by an almost intimate act consigned to a professional. Just as women sometimes confide in their hairdressers, so do men. But not only that – the barbers’ shops in this drama seem to serve the same purpose as the pub in British culture – as a place where men can talk about important things: football; politics; sex. There is a narrative thread. Samuel (Fisayo Akinade) is angry that his barber father is in prison for assault and that his former employee, Emmanuel (Cyril Nri) now runs the shop. The real blame for the crime may lie elsewhere and the unravelling of this mystery is one storyline. Yet other characters, many insistent on attention from their chosen barber, dragging him out of bed or arriving after hours, all bring their own stories. One 18-year old has an audition for a play – his part would be ‘Black man’. Indeed, ‘strong black man’. He doesn’t know what that means, or how to portray it, but the haircut and the barber’s fatherly words set him on the right path. There is some sadness in the passing observation that men of African descent have been let down by both their fathers and their leaders and that this is why some have left their home countries, in search of a better way to be. It is only lightly touched upon though; the tone is always more humorous than didactic. Hammed Animashaun provides the funniest moment of the evening as a sort of Nigerian gangsta with diamante studded baseball cap and gold chains. His story is one of sexual opportunism – should he sleep with a white woman or a black woman? After all he is not a racist and he likes having his drinks bought for him. In the end he scores with both and we are none the wiser as to which moral path would have been politically correct – but we come to understand that a chancer is a chancer in any culture. ‘Barber Shop Chronicles’ may have no real answers, but it is a hilarious night out across the generational divide. Sue Webster Fisayo Akinade (Samuel) in Barber Shop Chronicles. Photos: Marc Brenner. t h i s i s l o n d o n m a g a z i n e • t h i s i s l o n d o n o n l i n e

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