Barber Shop Chronicles

Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh

Five stars

Until November 9

Fallen Fruit

Tron Theatre, Glasgow

Three stars

Touring until November 30


In the UK, according to the Samaritans charity, suicide is on the increase, with men three times more likely than women to take their own lives. Here in Scotland (where we have the highest suicide rate in the UK) men aged between 35 and 44 are the most likely to kill themselves.

The economic and social factors behind the worrying statistics are many and varied. However, one thing is certain: most men don’t talk enough about their feelings and their mental health.

Which is where Inua Ellams’s brilliant, insightful and joyous play Barber Shop Chronicles comes in. Inspired by a project to give barbers basic counselling skills, the Nigerian-born playwright has written a subtle, intelligent and humane play about the importance of community and of conversation.

The drama is set in a series of men’s barber shops in London and various African cities on the day of a Chelsea versus Barcelona football match. From England to Ghana and South Africa, everyone has an interest in the game.

It’s far from being all football talk, however. In a string of discrete, but interconnected, scenes (which are interspersed delightfully with short, upbeat music and dance numbers) the conversation ranges from the complex demographics of Nigeria, to conflicting perspectives on the use of the N-word, and the life and music of the late Afrobeat superstar and political activist Fela Kuti.

The beauty of the piece is that it is written and performed (by a universally superb, 12-strong ensemble) with such an engaging humanity and humour that one is quite unaware of its erudition and impressive breadth of references. Indeed, like the conversation in a barber shop, the play can turn on a sixpence from the most serious of subjects (such as violent homophobia in Uganda) to lighthearted, everyday comedy (like the hilariously absurd machismo of a self-styled “Bad Boy” who, misguidedly, considers himself God’s gift to women).

As Ellams’s drama wends its way, back-and-forth, between England and Africa, there is a constant undercurrent in the London encounters. Young barber Samuel (played with an angry vulnerability by Mohammed Mansaray) rage’s against the shop’s owner Emmanuel (Anthony Ofoegbu on beautifully patient, understated form) in an affecting sub-plot that is, ultimately, brought to a poignant conclusion.

Director Bijan Sheibani’s production (for London-based performance company Fuel, the National Theatre of Great Britain and Leeds Playhouse) is a perfectly paced, big-hearted and deceptively modest tribute to the life-enhancing powers of human communication. Rae Smith’s set, a versatile barber shop illuminated by a shifting globe and a disco ball, has an appropriately unpretentious charm.

It is refreshing to see the noun “masculinity” uncoupled, for once, from the condemnatory adjective “toxic”. Here is the conversation of African and Black British men in all its humorous, fascinating, troubled, convivial diversity. Who would have thought that male chit-chat could be so compelling and uplifting?

There is a very different experience of diaspora in Katherina Radeva’s one-woman piece Fallen Fruit (which is being toured by Two Destination Language theatre company). The theatremaker moved to the UK in 1999, 10 years after her homeland, Bulgaria, (like the other nations of the former Warsaw Pact) threw off the shackles of Stalinism.

The piece began its life in 2010, as an exploration of her dual nationality and her connection to Bulgaria’s dramatic recent history. Now, in the midst of the UK’s anguished arguments over Brexit, Radeva finds herself thinking, again, about “nationhood, identity and politics”.

Her expression of those thoughts begins gently, using large boxes with Bulgarian letters written on them to acquaint us with the sounds of her mother tongue. It is, charmingly, rather like regressing to nursery school.

Dressed in the outfit of the young Communist pioneers, Radeva plays on an almost bare stage with a red neon star on the back wall. She explores the last months of Communist Bulgaria, largely through the story of young couple Stacey and Freda, who are separated when the latter (a photographer) decides to leave for the West.

The tale, in which Stacey sees Freda on TV, hammer in hand, at the fall of the Berlin Wall, is told using a series of (one suspects, intentionally) incongruent devised performance techniques. These range from straightforward narrating to audience participation in a reimagined television game show.

The material is not without its strengths, and Radeva is an often engaging performer. However, the inbuilt unevenness of the show’s structure hampers both its rhythm and its delivery.

For tour dates for Fallen Fruit, visit: