The York Theatre is classically Greek in its design – a vast stage thrusting into semi-circular seating. It is an arena for the epic and Barber Shop Chronicles (BSC) is just that, while also being very intimate in its contrasting scenes. The stories in the play are tales of regret, aspiration and struggle. It is a men only environment we are thrown into as for those in these cultures a haircut is equivalent to going to the pub or a men’s shed. Emotions run high, many truths and philosophies are shared, divisions occur and allegiencies are tested, but ultimately all is settled.

Rae Smith, the BSC designer, has utilised every each of space and stage in order to create various barber shops located in The UK, Uganda, Zimbabwe, South Africa, Nigeria and Ghana. To assist with the changing locations an enormous globe rotates and highlights certain nations during the many scene changes. Wall clocks change with the time zones suggesting unity and concurrent events. Also suspended above the stage and on the theatre walls are vibrant billboards for real or imagined men’s hair salons and the stage is littered with barbering tools, chairs and washbasins. The 12 actors are in constant connection either sitting observing scenes (as customers awaiting a trim) on lounges or chairs around the stage. Many play multiple roles and return dressed in extraordinary outfits – applause to the costume and wardrobe supervision. These actors strut their stuff, embodying characters that tell it how it is. Class, religion, language, financial status and definitions of “what is a man?’ are debated along with the pursuit for the perfect haircut. Truly – interior and exterior masculinity is under examination in this theatre piece.

The piece also contains some challenging political statements championing certain acts and policies of particular African dictators, along with white people’s perceived views of black culture.

Director Bijan Sheibani has injected dance, song and gesture into the scene changes while keeping the scene action on point. As this is a touring show from The UK and not designed for this venue there were times that voices were lost in the space. The accented English was difficult to pick up and originally distracted me. Although the sweep of The York is appropriate for BSC’s design vocally it would have played better in The Everest Theatre, that is, on a proscenium stage with the voices projected out. Producers and promoters must be conscious of an audience’s need and cater to the general ear. However one must surrender themselves to the whole production and luxuriate in the great rhythm of the language and narrative. Inua Ellams’ script is vigorously comic and dramatic in equal doses and in the hands of these fine actors it is an incredible theatre experience. It is what Sydney Festival is all about – the opportunity for Australians (and visitor) to be exposed to international theatre of the highest standard.

Mark G Nagle – Theatre Now & On The Town

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