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 The Theatreguide.London Review

In March 2020 the covid-19 epidemic forced the closure of all British theatres. Some companies adapted by putting archive recordings of past productions online, others by streaming new shows. Until things return to normal we review the experience of watching live theatre onscreen.


Barber Shop Chronicles
National Theatre At Home and YouTube   Spring 2020

This co-production of the National Theatre, Fuel and Leeds Playhouse played in the National's Dorfman Theatre in 2019 before a national and world tour and was recorded for the National Theatre Live series. It is a fast-moving, high-energy piecemeal look at African men relaxing and thereby exposing things about themselves that might otherwise remain hidden.

Playwright Inua Ellams moves the action through about a dozen scenes set in a half-dozen or so barber shops in London and several African countries. In each the barbers, customers and general hanging-around-ers do what men in friendly groups do – joke, gossip, trade gentle insults, debate politics, watch football, and just occasionally get serious.

The attractiveness and power of the play lie largely in these seemingly shapeless slices of life, and the sense they convey of the immeasurable social value of such bonding and time-killing. In an unforced way what they actually chat about begins to take shapes that delve deeper into their lives.

Inevitably race is one recurring topic, though not always in the terms and contexts you might expect. Direct political debate has a particular perspective, such as questioning whether Robert Mugabe's thoroughly corrupt reign in Zimbabwe wound up doing more for black Africans than Nelson Mandela's thoroughly honourable one did in South Africa.

Yet a couple of equally thought-provoking conversations are disguised as being about linguistics, when one group suggest that Pidgin might be a more legitimate African language than English, and when another speculate on whether the evil power of the most common racist words can ever be defused.

A little more surprisingly, a recurring theme of the various conversations is fathers and sons. More than one of the men have bitter memories of abusive fathers, while more than one feel alienated from their own sons.

The various threads are quietly brought together with the sense that a people without a past, a diaspora far from home and a man without a father all share a loss that makes moving forward difficult.

Under director Bijan Sheibani's guidance none of these serious moments is forced, as they all flow naturally out of the general chatter, and a cast of twelve, most doubling and redoubling roles, create instant and satisfyingly rounded characterisations.

Sheibani also sustains a warm intimacy with the audience through an in-the-round staging that puts the action literally inches from the front rows, and maintains a high energy level through choreographing the scene changes to music ranging from traditional African to hip-hop.

Those last two qualities – the intimacy and the inter-scene energy – are probably the biggest losses in the recorded version, which can't help feeling a little removed from the event, despite the skilful cross-cutting among several cameras. More than some other recorded productions, watching Barber Shop Chronicles onscreen makes you wish you were there.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review of  Barber Shop Chronicles - National Theatre At Home 2020