Inspired by a flyer on teaching barbers the basics of counselling, Ellams spent 6 weeks researching in Africa, visiting Lagos; Accra; Kampala; Johannesburg and Harare. He arrived back in London with over 60 hours of barber shop conversations, eventually editing it into intimate and open conversations between barber and customer.
Starting off relatively high-spirited the conversations revolve around sex, football, cars. As the play progresses it soon transitions into more topical themes; poverty, masculinity, racism and politics – conversations on Mugabe and Mandella, casting an unbiased eye to both sides of these ex-leaders political lives and the impact their decisions provoked. And an insight into first and second generation migration from Africa to London and the displacement that can lead to. The conversations and the emotions they provoke are intriguing.
If you have visited any of these African cities you will recognise designer Rae Smith’s inspiration. The tangle of electric and telephone cables hanging overhead is all too real, retro African barber shop signs with their once vibrant colours now faded, the ram shackle shops themselves, symbolised by a few office chairs and trolley immediately immerse you into any African township or city. And the pre-show ‘entertainment’ is inspired. Loud reggae-cum-hip hop music with 12 superb performers selecting unsuspecting audience members to accompany them on the barber chairs for a ‘haircut’. The result is a mishmash of laughter, arguing, music, singing and dancing.
The next 1 hour and 45 minutes introduces us to 25+ genuinely real characters delivered by 12 extraordinary performers. Scene changes are interspersed with song, chant and dance, swiftly transforming the stage into another barber shop in another corner of Africa. Story telling is slick, running the gamut of emotion, often hilarious, poignant, unreservedly authentic and delivered with utmost conviction. And what starts out as seemingly unrelated conversations soon unravels common themes and inter generational connections. Being culturally defined, accents are region specific, often very thick, broad and on occasion quite difficult to understand, but once your ear clicks into the rhythm and speed of delivery you are completely transfixed.
Director Bijan Sheibani and playwright Inua Ellams have given us a very unique privilege. They have whisked us into a world we will never be privy to. We learn things, simply through these conversations that occurred half a world away. And that in itself is extraordinary.