Edinburgh Lyceum, until 9 November (rating: 4/5)
A barber shop may not seem like an obvious setting for a successful play – unless it involves a barber with the name Sweeney – but this production comes to The Lyceum as part of a UK tour following two sell-out runs at the National Theatre in London.
It was inspired by a flyer that writer Inua Ellams received in 2010 about a pilot project to teach barbers about the basics of counselling.
The idea of the barber’s chair as both psychiatrist’s couch and confession box, and not just the place you sit while you have your hair cut, provided the basis for the script that cleverly moves between barber shops in Lagos, Peckham, Johannesburg, Harare, Kampala and Accra, with all the conversations taking place over one day.
There are common threads that link the settings. A Chelsea Barcelona Champions League game is watched and debated in all the shops and the ex-pat Africans in Peckham all have connections to the places, and sometimes people, that are home to the other shops.
However, what ties the locations together more than this are the conversations and the topics explored. African attitudes to mental health, homosexuality and child discipline in particular are raised in a variety of locations with opinions varying depending on how much the characters views are informed by the places in which they grew up, where they are living now, or the politics and events that define their country and shaped their lives.
This helps to frame a wider reflection on African cultural identity that also runs through the play and informs many of the conversations as well as providing some of the strongest, most reflective, moments.
Ellams is careful not to overplay the discussions or hold a questioning candle too close to any of his characters. He is not judging anyone, merely presenting them as they are, and for every serious point they raise there are many more light-hearted moments where the chat is little more than idle banter as men come together and skim the surface of whatever topics occur to them, rather than delve too deeply into them for fear of revealing too much about their real thoughts and feelings.
Under Bijan Sheibani’s direction, the flexibility of Rae Smith’s simple but effective set allows the stage to continually transform from one location to another as the fine ensemble cast rearrange chairs and props under the guidance of movement director Aline David.
Music and singing combine with this to create a feel of both the uniqueness and universality of each setting, which is supplemented by all the cast playing roles in more than one of the locations and large parts of the conversations feeling like they could be taking place anywhere.
A joke that is retold in each location, with only the nationalities changing each time, along with a poster advertising a BMW that is seen in both Peckham and Lagos, are clever touches and the structure of the play also points to how this day could be any day by opening and closing with someone arriving for a haircut before the shop opens or just after it closes.
The rapid fire conversation and switches between settings in the opening parts of the play are a little overwhelming at first, but once it settles into its groove and establishes a nice balance between the disposable and reflective the production really comes to life. It might even make you want to book a hair appointment.