Theatre review: Barber Shop Chronicles, Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh

Barber Shop Chronicles 12-strong cast, all male, are exuberant and present the drama brilliantly
Barber Shop Chronicles 12-strong cast, all male, are exuberant and present the drama brilliantly
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AS CENTURIES go, the 21st has been a depressing one so far; and it’s therefore a huge pleasure – even a joy – to welcome to Edinburgh a show that could not belong to any century except this troubled one of ours, and yet is so vibrant with life, hope, truth and humanity that at times it lifts us right out of our seats, as members of the audience join the cast onstage in getting down to a few sizzling African sounds.

Barber Shop Chronicles, Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh ****

The idea behind Inua Ellams’s Barber Shop Chronicles – produced by Kate McGrath’s Fuel company with the National Theatre in London and Leeds Playhouse – seems simple. Essentially, it takes a deep dive into the truth of black men’s lives by basing its dialogue on real-life conversations recorded in barber shops, often an important centre of community life for men of African heritage; but the show’s global reach, developed over half a decade, took Ellams to shops both in London and across Africa, as he gradually created a narrative set across six global cities on a single day in 2012 – the day when Chelsea beat Barcelona in a Champions League semi-final, which is being watched or listened to in most of the shops.

The drama – brilliantly presented by an exuberant all-male cast of 12 – centres on events in a shop in Peckham, a place connected by threads of memory and kinship to all the African cities featured, but that also acts as an arena for a tense power struggle between gifted young barber Samuel, and his older boss Emmanuel.

What’s striking about the play, though, and Bijan Sheibani’s production, is how that thread of narrative tension hardly seems necessary, in a play woven from a series of incidents and characters that glow like gems against the backdrop of barber shops, smart and tatty, across the world. Conversations – and jokes – range across any number of vital themes, from the challenges of fatherhood to the long, bitter legacy of South African apartheid; and they are punctuated by superb bursts of music, with brilliant, relaxed and joyous choreography by Aline David.

Perfection is not this show’s selling-point; it has rough-edged quality reflected in performances that often vary in strength. What it has, though, in quantities, is a sense of profound, heartfelt connection with the grassroots of our global community, as it is now; a place of constant migration and change, where designer Rae Smith’s starry transparent globe, revolving above the set, forever reminds us that this is one world, and that we had better learn to enjoy being part of that single human family, before it’s too late.

JOYCE MCMILLAN

Until 9 November