Barber Shop Chronicles' razor sharp theatre examines race, male mental health and more as the Inua Ellams-written play hits Eden Court, Inverness next week
AFTER more than 300 performances of the Barber Shop Chronicles, actor David Webber is still razor keen.
Since its debut performance back in 2017, the critically-acclaimed theatre production has had two sell out runs at the National Theatre, a tour across the world, and is gearing up this October and November for its first Scottish shows – including Eden Court next week.
David is one of two cast members remaining who have been with the show since its first performance – yet hearing his enthusiasm for the production, he makes it sounds as through he’s gearing up for its first performance all over again.
“To be honest, I don’t know of any other show – not many shows come around that you would do for this length of time,” he enthuses.
“This is not just about acting in this show. It’s also about the effects we have on audiences, and what audiences take from it, and that’s really what keeps me going.
“What keeps the show alive is that people get so much from the show. And there’s also such a sense of ownership, where people take ownership of the show.”
Taking place over one night, the production jumps between six barbershops – in Johannesburg, Harare, Kampala, Lagos, Accra and London – and the groups of men within them, as they talk and joke and discuss everything from fatherhood to the Chelsea versus Barcelona match taking place that night that helps to thread these stories together.
“Within the shop and across the different countries, the theme of supporting that football team is a theme that continues,” David explained. “It’s another link that they find whether they be people in South Africa listening to the game on the radio, people hurrying to watch the game in Uganda or Ghana.
“And because it’s an all-male cast as well, it gives it a kind of really good framework for men getting together, men expressing emotions together, men having the same passion about one thing is quite interesting.”
The barbershop is one of the only places that it could happen in the UK, because we found that black men didn’t fit into what was already established
The topic of men opening up and talking has always been important, and it is one that has been thrown into sharp relief over the last decade – with men’s mental health and an ongoing crisis of young male suicide a pressing concern in the Highlands and beyond.
Barber Shop Chronicles, as David explains, gives audiences a chance to see men – black men specifically – congregate within the six shops and speak openly about topics in ways theatregoers might not expect.
“Audiences are invited in like a fly on the wall in many ways to hear men talk without women being present, and black people talk without white people being present,” he said.
“There’s often a filter when the crowd is more mixed, and without this filter you kind of hear how people feel and what they think in those moments, it’s a rare moment where men gather together and can talk.
“The barbershop is one of the only places that it could happen in the UK, because we found that black men didn’t fit into what was already established – working men’s clubs, which were predominantly white working class establishments, but there was often a lot of racism within those, and black men were not welcome so they couldn’t fit in to that group.
“And barbershops became the only place where black men could go and be themselves.”
The production was born, in many ways, from that concern about having these spaces to converse, and about mental health. “Initially the show came out of the writer. The writer had a girlfriend, a partner who was interested in mental health, and mental health and wellbeing in black men, and decided that she was going to look into the idea of training barbers in some kind of basic counselling skills.
“Maybe the person would know what question to ask and what direction to point them in, and let people know that it’s okay. It’s letting them know that it’s okay to seek help.
“But men don’t, we don’t seek help, do you know what I mean? It’s not seen as manly to go and say that you’re depressed or that you need help – it’s not a masculine thing – and that’s not just black men, that’s men, generally. But you know, it can be quite acute in black men even more so with regards to keeping it in rather than seeking help.
"So Inua Ellams, who is a brilliant writer, he got into this and he got into this and thought it was a fantastic idea and a notion, and he got very interested and went along with his partner.
“And then he started to do his own research into barbershops and what people were saying and recorded a lot of conversations and stories in barbershops in all the countries that we see on stage.”
And the stories of the men in these six barbershops have universal qualities that reach out beyond their four walls. “On a very specific level it’s 12 black actors and it’s set in London and five different African countries – that’s true.
“But I’ve had friends who are not of that demographic loving the show and actually being moved to tears at times because they could see relationships with their own father, stuff like that.
“And so people see themselves in there regardless of background, and I love that – that makes it very universal.”
Those universal qualities have been proven by the show’s touring across the world – from Birmingham and London to Australia and the US, audiences have all responded rapturously.
“I think most people can relate to stories about becoming a father, parents and children, the bonds of brothers and sisters and things like that,” David said.
“And people, everybody can relate to them, even though it’s all men – my female friends who’ve been to see it have loved it and gotten a lot out of it themselves, and not felt excluded as women.
“They’ve enjoyed looking at this male world and can see parallels with their own world anyway.”
Barber Shop Chronicles begins its three night run at Eden Court from Thursday night. For more information or to book tickets, go to www.barbershopchronicles.co.uk