Barber Shop Chronicles (4 stars)

Barber Shop Chronicles

credit: Marc Brenner

A slice of life across the world

Inua Ellams' script for Barber Shop Chronicles doesn't simply represent multiple male voices from the African diaspora – it challenges conventional dramatic structure to depict a shifting kaleidoscope of personalities and positions, gliding from a tense day in London across to vignettes in barbershops in Accra, Johannesburg and more. By turns thoughtful, cutting and direct, the script draws on verbatim conversations to cover reflections on male identity, the relationship between fathers and sons, the complications caused by colonial oppression and the importance of supporting Chelsea.

The ambition of the script is matched by a striking ensemble performance. With nine of the twelve actors taking at least two roles, the choreographic interludes between the episodes operate as a reset, shifting the location and characters, while injecting a musical dynamism. On this solid structure, Ellams conjures a suggestive and allusive meditation on masculinity that refuses answers but reveals a continuity of experience from London to Lagos.

The strongest thread follows generational tensions in the London shop – a young man blames his father's business partner for his imprisonment, before the truth is exposed through the classic tragic revelation – but the narrative is more concerned with the themes of masculinity responsibility and identity. This resistance to the tragic structure offers Ellams and director Bijan Sheibani to ponder how the colonial legacy has separated fathers and sons, using the haircut as an example of masculinity display.

It is far from a simplistic positivity – or condemnation of injustice – that drives the production. Alcohol abuse and strutting bravado get their moments, and a single joke, based in a class, nation or racial hierarchy is shared across continents, suggesting that the values that bind the men are not without their prejudices. Never trying to be complete – many supposedly masculine characteristics are unexplored – these Chronicles operate as an introduction to discussions that are vivid and current, yet the energy of the cast and the wit of the writing ensure that it remains joyous and celebratory.

Lyceum, Edinburgh, until Sat 10 Nov, and touring.

Barber Shop Chronicles

A new play by Inua Ellams, which moves the action from a barber shop in London to Johannesburg, Harare, Kampala, Lagos and Accra.

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