York Theatre, Seymour Centre, Sydney
January 19, 2018

Pumping music greets the audience members who file into the Seymour Centre’s York Theatre for Inua Ellams’ Barber Shop Chronicles, in town for the Sydney Festival before it heads to Perth next month. The stage, littered with barber’s chairs and lounges, is bustling with people dancing, chatting, taking selfies and getting their hair cut. Audience members mingle with actors – they are plucked from their seats for a free stage haircut – in a fluid mass of people, a party atmosphere that has the crowd well and truly warmed up before the first lines of the play are spoken.

Barber Shop Chronicles, which was co-commissioned by Fuel and the National Theatre, premiering at the Dorfman Theatre in London last year, is set in six barber shops – in Johannesburg, Harare, Kampala, Lagos, Accra and London – where men gather to talk, argue, unwind and, of course, get their hair cut.

Barber Shop Chronicles Barber Shop Chronicles at the Sydney Festival. Photo © Prudence Upton

A poet, performer, graphic artist and designer, Nigerian-born British playwright Ellams drew on interviews and field research conducted in barber shops across London and Africa, speaking to African men about what it means to be men, to create this upbeat, dialogue-driven celebration of daily life.

“[Barber shops] tend to be the few places we can gather, where we can be ourselves, and not feel there is a voyeuristic or critical eye, from non-black men looking at us,” Ellams told Audrey Journal in an interview last year, a situation brought into stark relief in Australia more recently with the Federal Government’s rhetoric on “African gang violence” in Victoria and the associated media coverage. (Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull turned down the offer of an on-stage haircut at last night’s performance.)

But there is a bright poeticism to this play, which unfolds through superbly crafted – and snappily delivered – spoken word rather than action. Ellams has said he develops concepts for poetry into theatre works when the subject is better served by a multitude of voices – and there are a dizzying array of voices, accents, opinions and beliefs in Barber Shop Chronicles, which are neatly bound together by the April 2012 Champions League semi-final match between Chelsea and Barcelona, as well as a string of motifs – words, references, jokes and a poster – that recur across the six locations.

Barber Shop ChroniclesBarber Shop Chronicles at the Sydney Festival. Photo © Prudence Upton

While this is a wordy play, there is plenty of life on stage – scene changes are chaotic frenzies that suddenly coalesce into tightly choreographed (and barber shop themed) dance routines, while Rae Smith’s relatively simple, flexible set design combines with Gareth Fry’s sensitive sound to evoke locations in six countries with remarkable economy.

The members of the 12-piece ensemble give virtuosic performances, under the direction of Bijan Sheibani, deftly juggling multiple roles with chameleon-like ease and bringing vivid, often comic, life to each character’s quirks and tics as they tell their stories and talk politics, family life, sexuality, music, sport and language. But it is the relationship between Samuel (Bayo Gbadamosi) and his boss at the Three Kings barber shop in London, Emmanuel (Cyril Nri), that forms the emotional spine of the play. Gbadamosi and Nri carefully manage the simmering tension between the pair in fine, nuanced performances set against the lighter, comic repartee going on around them.

Barber Shop ChroniclesBarber Shop Chronicles at the Sydney Festival. Photo © Prudence Upton

While so much of the strength and joy of this work is in dialogue, verbosity does weigh down its momentum somewhere near the half-way point. But a pivot from casual banter to the unveiling of deeper desires and secrets – the anger and pain that has been lurking below the surface – soon pulls the drama taut, making Barber Shop Chronicles compelling to the end.

There is plenty of politics – the legacies of Mandela and Mugabe are explored, Trump and May get nods – and Ellam densely packs each scene with an incredible number of layers. But ultimately it is the more intimate politics of family, community and identity – particularly the relationships between fathers and sons – that lies at the heart of Barber Shop Chronicles.


Barber Shop Chronicles is at the Seymour Centre as part of the Sydney Festival until January 28.

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Barber Shop Chronicles plays at the Octagon Theatre as part of the Perth Festival February 9 – 18.

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