Barber Shop Chronicles

Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh

Neil Cooper

Four stars

Men-only clubs can cover a multitude of sins. By setting his play in an international network of African-run barbershops, however, Inua Ellams taps into a world that is both intimate and social enough to foster a set of exchanges that may begin with the international language of football, but broadens out to question exactly what it means to be a man of colour in a white world.

Bijan Sheibani’s production makes a joyful song and dance of all this in a busy, bright and brash production that moves between six shops, one in London and five in different African countries. It’s April 2012, and Chelsea are about to hammer Barcelona in the Champions League semi-final. This event ramps up an already highly charged network of men and boys in need of a pre-match trim and all the cross-generational cut and thrust that goes with it.

These include the sort of conversations that go beyond matters of life and death in the game itself. In Nigeria, Uganda, South Africa, Ghana and beyond, emotive universal debates on sexuality, women, the use of the N-word, pidgin English and such-like become localised, so every street-corner incident becomes epic.

Everyday dramas, meanwhile, become similarly intensified by the close proximity of those involved. The effect is akin to something whipped up by a rap-sired Damon Runyon, with each punch-packing yarn delivered with a baroque swagger that fronts a community more vulnerable and less sure of themselves than they like to let on.

Out on tour following a run at the National Theatre in co-production with Fuel and Leeds Playhouse, Sheibani’s production is fused with an effervescent energy from its cast of twelve, who double up with abandon as they move through time-zones on Rae Smith’s magnificently cluttered set. Mohammed Mansaray brings a determined humility to Samuel, who eventually squares up Anthony Ofoegbu’s hang-dog proprietor Emmanuel. The result is as sharp as a buzz-cut in a show that’s something for the weekend and a whole lot more.