I’m a freelance journalist and published poet, based in Manchester.
Beyond the fringe
The new production at the Royal Exchange is set in barbers shops from Lagos to South London. Not much haircutting takes place. Aside from the fact that the actors are - presumably - not qualified hairstylists, none of the characters are remotely hirsute.
We soon realise that barber-shop life is much more to do with the companionship, arguments and jokes which fill the space between the occasional snips. It is based on writer Inua Ellams' own experience and six weeks of research in travelling through the African continent.
Debate centres around the merits of various African leaders and the battle of the sexes and the generations. This being an all-male ensemble, conversation also returns, like clockwork, to the lingua franca of football - especially Chelsea FC. Only when there is one customer and one barber do doubts and anxieties dare rear their troubled heads explicitly.
The Cast of 'Barber Shop Chronicles'. Photograph by Marc Brenner.
In the main, it's a high energy evening (arrive early and you might get invited on the stage to dance). In one respect it is like the previous production at the Royal Exchange - Mother Courage - in the way each scene ends with a song (and a dance). Except there wasn't much Afrobeat and Grime music in Mother Courage.
As with Mother Courage, I found that I missed the occasional word. But this quibble with the theatre-in-the-round setting is more than made up for by the freedom it gives the actors to tune into audience reactions.
Demmy Ladipo is terrific value in his three roles. He has hypnotic timing and an ability to rattle out syllables as his stories build to their crescendo. The drumbeat rhythm is a double blessing as his boasts about women would probably result in embarrassed silence if they were voiced by an old Etonian.
Mohammed Mansaray, Ade Dee Haastrup and Elander Moore. Photograph by Marc Brenner.
The episodic structure of Inua Ellams' play - performed without an interval - gives it a terrific tempo. But, in some moments, I felt I had not invested enough to truly care about the characters (especially Samuel [Mohammed Mansaray]) when the 'banter' finally gave way to the layers of pain underneath.
That said, the last scene between Emmanuel (Anthony Ofoegbu, Circle Mirror Transformation ) and Ethan (Elander Moore) is genuinely touching and inspiring.
Barber Shop Chronicles, directed by Bijan Sheibani, cuts close to the bone but it does so in a bewitchingly entertaining way. It is a play about serious themes but it is also fun enough to be 'something for the weekend'.
Jo Servi and Emmanuel Ighodaro. Photograph by Marc Brenner.