Review: Barber Shop Chronicles (Bristol Old Vic)

All images by Marc Brenner
Image by Marc Brenner

When blackness sees itself through white eyes, it always falls short…When blackness doesn’t trust itself, when blackness doesn’t love itself, it can’t prosper.

Black, Listed By jeffrey boakye (2019)

Going to the barber is more than just the literal act of sitting and getting your hair cut. You go armed with answers about your day, your next holiday, the weekend or Brexit. On the surface, it can be a mundane act of treading water until you leave looking more groomed than you were before you entered. What you don’t bank on is the cathartic act of spiritual or emotional cleansing. The opportunity to off load your latest gripe, talk about your up coming adventure or share an experience that has either been weighing you down or powering you up.

Image by Marc Brenner

To read that Inua Ellam was inspired to write Barber Shop Chronicles after being handed a flyer that offered barbers basic training in counselling makes absolute sense. Created using over 60 hours worth of recordings gathered from South Africa, Kenya, Uganda, Nigeria and Ghana, writer Inua Ellam takes his audience on a geographical and emotional odyssey, hopping continents and emotions, taking the occasional break to check in with a football match, all the while opening a door into the world of black masculinity.

Set under a spinning globe and on an ever changing landscape of locations, the 12 strong cast tread a fearless path through thorny matters of parenthood, mental health, women, culture and football. The results are not always comfortable, satisfying or easy. That is not the point of Barber Shop Chronicles. One could argue that isn’t the point of theatre.

What Ellam’s majestic script and Director Bijan Sheibani’s production does so beautifully is act as a firestarter to a much bigger conversation. How can we create an arena where people from different backgrounds, different generations and different demographics share, disagree, fall out and yet still dance together like no one is looking?

Image by Marc Brenner

From arguably one of the most joyful pre-show set ups known to theatre through to the air punching finale, Barber Shop Chronicles is a bold and inexorable march towards changing the way we share stories, shifting the mainstream narrative and dealing with both joy and pain in equal measure.

Barber Shop Chronicles continues at Bristol Old Vic until Saturday 18th May. Full details can be found here.

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