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NT Live (YouTube) review: The Barber Shop Chronicles

May 15, 2020

The Barber Shop Chronicles, National Theatre (YouTube) to May 21.
Usually when one goes to the theatre it is with an increasing sense of anticipation. You have read reviews, you have bought tickets, organised the logistics of travel, and 
planned your date night. In the auditorium before the performance you have the buzz of the audience, you read the programme, thrill at the production photos.

  Finally the lights go down, and if there is one, the curtain draws back. This was a very different experience.

  It was a last-minute decision. I was late after the weekly NHS clap, and impulsively decided to tune in, knowing nothing in advance.
  The screening experience is now well established. I am lucky enough to have good internet and a smart TV and found the play on YouTube easily. It was partway through the showing, but it was easy to scroll back to the exuberant opening. A large screen coupled with subtitles (useful to follow the pidgin dialogue and African dialect in this performance) made the experience very easy. Watching on a phone or laptop might not be such a comfortable ride.
  The Barber Shop Chronicles was filmed in 2018 and has not been previously available. I found it a shot in the arm, with lively performances, unusual mise en scene, and great use of music.

  Subtitles meant you could see the song title, artist and lyrics running along the bottom of the screen. Without prior information, the multiple locations in the plot took a little time to orientate. The camera angle meant we couldn’t see what the live audience could, a lit-up area on the great wire globe that hangs above Rae Smith's set.

  The action takes place on one day and is simultaneously set in barber shops in Johannesburg, Harare, Kampala, Lagos, Accra and London. The author gives us insight into the habit of African men gathering in barber premises,sometimes to have haircuts, but also to talk and just hangout. In Nigeria they may also go to charge their phones as the barber has a generator. Barber shops are “confession boxes, political platforms, preacher-pulpits and football pitches... places to go for unofficial advice, and to keep in touch with the world”.
  Bijan Sheibani, director of this co-production between the National Theatre, the West
Yorkshire Playhouse and Fuel, juggles the large cast and multiple locations with the watcher in mind. This performance was filmed at the Roundhouse where the audience benefit from the whirling barbers’ chairs and mobile set, which is really made up from props on wheels. Dialect coach Hazel Holder nails each location with its own argot and the inflections and nuances of speech soon leave you in no doubt where you have relocated to with each scene.

  The cast, some playing multiple roles, were totally convincing in each mother-tongue. There is a running joke told in each shop along the lines of an Englishman, Scotsman and Irishman, but with each city/country the persona change - to hausa-man, yoruba-man and igbo-man in Nigeria, then to bayoki-man, bagonda man in Ghana...and here my shorthand skills reading the subtitles failed me

  The script is full of jokes often repeated in the different settings, particularly as they all watch the Chelsea v Barcelona final in different time zones across the two continents. But in-jokes and nods to uniquely African allusions make this a multi-cultural pandora’s box, here much appreciated by the London audience.

  These include the funeral of singer Fela Kuti, Winnie Mandela’s contribution to freeing Nelson, Truth and Reconciliation, apartheid, colonialism (“When they came we had the land, they had the bibles. We closed our eyes to pray and when we opened them we had the bibles and they had the land”) and Mugabe’s stance in Zimbabwe.
  The central glue is the Three Kings barber shop in London. Here, embracing the digital nature of the evening, some judicious searching revealed the names of the talented cast members. Young Samuel (Fisayo Akinade) works with Winston (Anthony Welsh) a thirty-something Caribbean and Emmanuel (Cyril Nri), the Nigerian proprietor.
  There is a rather superfluous thread about Samuel’s dad being unjustly ousted as a partner in this business and wrongly sent to jail. It serves to prompt an exploration of the relationship between fathers and sons and the idea of “strong, black masculinity” in the absence of role models, and brackets the action with a mysterious stranger who appears at the start to return in the final act.
  I was rapt throughout, not distracted, no refreshments. It is better than the cinema “Live” stream as there is no intro, no interval, just a quick fix. I am lucky that I could enjoy it on a decent screen but this show is as much an audio experience with the rich voices, the slang, the music from Skepta and other contemporary rappers, to Zimbabwean Jit music.

  Another such evening and there will be a donation winging its way south, not to Harare but the South Bank.

A Streetcar Named Dersire is next in the NT YouTube series. Details on the News pages.

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