Bijan Sheibani

Barber Shop Chronicles

24/10/19

Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh

There’s a different vibe in the Lyceum tonight: a youthful, energetic atmosphere. We take our seats fifteen minutes early, but the party’s already in full swing, with audience members invited up on to the stage, where the twelve-strong cast are dancing, chatting and miming cutting people’s hair. A couple of teenagers from the front row run up the steps self-consciously; within seconds they’re in barbers’ chairs, laughing with the actors standing behind them. A middle-aged man tries in vain to copy some dance moves; he’s having a great time. An actor wanders through the auditorium, shaking hands, making daft jokes. This immersive opening has a clear message: Barber Shop Chronicles is an inclusive piece of theatre, and we’re meant to be more involved than mere observers.

Inua Ellams’ play was first performed two years ago at the National Theatre (who co-produced it with Fuel and Leeds Playhouse). Since then, it’s been on tour, and its success is well-deserved. An intimate piece that spans six countries; a politically-charged play that doesn’t proselytise; a comedy that brings its audience to tears: Barber Shop Chronicles is nothing if not original.

The conceit is simple: a barber is not just a man who cuts his clients’ hair. He is also a counsellor, his shop is a confessional. And, if this is true, if men really do open up to their barbers, then what can we glean if we listen in? London-based Ellams’ research took him to South Africa, Kenya, Uganda, Nigeria and Ghana, and he returned with sixty hours of recordings on which he based his play. The authenticity of the voices rings true throughout, exploring the experiences of black men in Africa and the UK. We flit between time zones and hairdressers, the clocks whizzing round at double speed to take us between continents. In each shop, they’re watching the same football match (Chelsea vs Barcelona), each disparate group united by their interest in the sport.

There’s a lot to take in; under Bijan Sheibani’s direction, everything happens at breakneck speed. I like this: sure, there’s not always time to absorb one idea before another comes along, but the overlapping stories and fragments of ideology feel wonderfully realistic, adding to the impression that we’re listening in to what real people have to say.

The performances are exuberant for the most part, but quiet and heartfelt when required. This is true ensemble work, with a real sense of a team creating something together. The scene transitions are fascinating, the choreography both lively and precise.

The best thing, though, is the wide-ranging conversation, encompassing little-heard persepctives on everything from Nigerian Pidgin to Mugabe, from high performance cars to fatherhood. It’s densely packed – and never dull.

4.2 stars

Susan Singfield

A Taste of Honey

24/09/19

King’s Theatre, Edinburgh

I first encountered Shelagh Delaney through The Smiths, way back when, before Morrissey disgraced himself. His gorgeous early songs are littered with her words, and her face features on both album and single covers. As a young Moz-fan with literary pretensions, of course I read A Taste of Honey; of course I bought a video of the film. Since then, I’ve seen a few theatre productions too, but – honestly – tonight’s interpretation is my favourite of the lot.

Bijan Sheibani’s Honey might not be as gritty as some versions, but it illuminates the dysfunctional mother-daughter relationship at the heart of the play more effectively than I have seen before. The characters are more ordinary, more credible, than they sometimes appear, the quirky expositional dialogue rendered somehow hyper-real.

Jodie Prenger excels as Helen, the non-maternal mother-figure who dominates the play. She’s resentful of her teenage daughter, Jo (Gemma Dobson), seeing her as an encumbrance, a dead weight dragging her down. Unsurprisingly, Jo is resentful too; she demands attention, yearns for Helen’s love. But Helen’s too busy thinking about herself and her sex life to care what her daughter’s up to, and Jo has learned not to expect much from life. Even as she’s losing her virginity, in thrall to erudite sailor Jimmie (Durone Stokes) – whose race doesn’t seem as relevant as it did in 1958 – she’s gloomily predicting that he’ll walk out of her life.

And she’s right.

Jo seems doomed to follow in Helen’s fucked-up footsteps: by the second act, all too predictably, she too is a pregnant teenager, alone and dreading motherhood. Her best friend, Geoffrey (Stuart Thompson), really wants to help; he’s even prepared to try to make a heterosexual relationship work. But Jo knows that can’t fly – and Helen’s not about to let Jo find happiness anyway.

In this National Theatre production, relationships are centre-stage. Poverty is less of an issue than it usually seems in this play: Helen’s marriage to the rich-but-odious Peter (Tim Carey), for example, seems borne more from greed than financial necessity.

The ever-present three-piece band is an interesting touch, lending the piece a kind of louche, lounge-bar-style seediness. The songs are beautifully sung, underscoring the emotional effects of the characters’ actions. I like the direction (although perhaps the scenery doesn’t need to be moved quite so much): the business and bustle, the use of understudies as strange double/twin stage hands.

This really is a ‘revival’ in the truest sense of the word – breathing new life into an ageing classic, making it relevant to today’s audience.

4.3 stars

Susan Singfield