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Review: The treat that is Barber Shop Chronicles, streaming from the National Theatre archive

You can't beat the experience of sitting in a theatre watching a live performance but one of the lockdown-positives is a chance to watch stuff I sadly missed and Barber Shop Chronicles is one of those.


It feels particularly fortuitous to see it because what is being streamed isn't an NT Live recording rather it was filmed for the archive* and these generally aren't for public consumption.

Despite watching Barber Shop Chronicles in isolation on my laptop you still get a sense of its vibrancy and its pulse.

Set in six different barber shops - London, Lagos, Johannesburg, Accra, Kampala and Harare - Inua Ellams' play showcases the similarities of human experience, desires and dreams across different cultures while simultaneously demonstrating what makes them unique and individual.

Over the course of a day, the barber shop-setting, combined with a big football match between Chelsea and Barcelona is a connecting thread on one level, the desire to belong and be seen is another.

The setting is clever, the barber shop functioning not merely as a place for haircuts and shaves but also a place of  (male) community where opinions are aired, arguments worked through and jokes swapped.

We hear differing opinions on parenting, masculinity, the post-colonialism landscape and immigration, which paints a vivid kaleidoscope of culture and thinking.

But while the scope of the topics may seem broad, what this production does really well is to tease out personal stories across the shops.

It balances the liveliness of banter and argument - and upbeat musical interludes - with quieter, more intimate moments that will tug on your heartstrings by the end.

When Barber Shop Chronicles was on stage, the reviews hinted that it was something special and they weren't wrong.

It is streaming via the National Theatre YouTube channel until Thursday and I'm giving it ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️.


* Archive recordings are generally to keep a record of the production for educational purposes, not public screenings which means it no doubt requires a different set of permissions to stream them online.

They aren't generally filmed to the same high standards as NT Live which are commercial recordings but having watched Barber Shop Chronicles, the quality has certainly improved since the last archive I recording I saw. That recording was Ben Whishaw's Hamlet which is held at the V&A theatre archive (it is a treasure trove).

You can't just walk in off the street to watch them - it's part of an educational facility - it involves form filling and booking in advance plus strict rules about what you can and can't do when you are watching but that is part of the experience, which I wrote about at the time

I wonder whether we might see some more archive recordings while theatres are dark?

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