National Theatre at Home to stream Barber Shop Chronicles co-production with Leeds Playhouse on YouTube from May 14

The Barber Shop Chronicles: Cheering on Chelsea in a Champions League match. Pictures: Arc Brenner

BARBER Shop Chronicles, the Leeds Playhouse co-production with the National Theatre, will be streamed on the National Theatre at Home’s YouTube channel from May 14.

Staged in the Courtyard at the Leeds theatre in July 2017 and filmed at the National Theatre’s Dorfman theatre in January 2018, Inua Ellams’ international hit play will be shown in a never-before-seen archive recording.

Barber Shop Chronicles tells the interwoven tales of black men from across the globe who, for generations, have gathered in barber shops, where the banter can be barbed and the truth is always cutting.

Co-produced with third partner Fuel, Bijan Sheibani’s production went on to play BAM in New York before a London return to the Roundhouse last summer and further performances at Leeds Playhouse last autumn.

The National Theatre at Home initiative takes NT Live into people’s homes during the Coronavirus shutdown of theatres and cinemas with free screenings, each production being shown on demand for seven days after the first 7pm show on Thursdays.

Patrice Naiambana as Tokunbo in Barber Shop Chronicles

Hull playwright Richard Bean’s comedy One Man, Two Guvnors kicked off the series, since when Jane Eyre, Treasure Island, Twelfth Night and Frankenstein have been streamed, drawing eight million viewers over the past month. Next up, from 7pm tonight, will be Antony & Cleopatra starring Ralph Fiennes and Sophie Okonedo as Shakespeare’s fated lovers.

Looking ahead, the Young Vic production of Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire, starring Gillian Anderson as Blanche DuBois, is in the diary for May 21 to 28; James Graham’s insight into the workings of 1970s’ Westminster politics, This House, May 28 to June 4, and the Donmar Warehouse production of Coriolanus, starring Tom Hiddleston in Shakespeare’s political revenge tragedy, June 4 to 11.

Given that theatres are predicted to be at the back of the queue for re-opening under the gradual relaxation of lockdown measures, the future of the industry for artists and organisations remains uncertain. Consequently, the National Theatre has, in agreement with the actors’ union Equity, committed to pay all artists and creatives involved with productions streamed as part of National Theatre at Home.

Robin Hawkes, executive director of Leeds Playhouse, says: “We’re really pleased that Barber Shop Chronicles, which we brought back to Leeds last year after it was a huge hit with audiences here at the Playhouse previously, is going to be one of the first partner theatre performances accessible to such a wide audience through NT at Home.”      

Lisa Burger, the National Theatre’s executive director and joint chief executive, says: “I’m delighted that in this next collection of titles to be streamed as part of National Theatre at Home we are including productions from our NT Live partner theatres.

Cyril Nri as Emmanuel in Barber Shop Chronicles

“When we launched National Theatre at Home last month, we wanted to offer audiences the opportunity to engage with theatre during this time of isolation while we were unable to welcome them to the South Bank or into cinemas.”

Burger continues: “This initiative wouldn’t have been possible without the support of a great number of artists for which we are incredibly grateful. We have been absolutely thrilled by the response from viewers enjoying the productions from right across the globe, and we have also been surprised and delighted at the generous donations we’ve received since closure.

“While the National Theatre continues to face a precarious financial future, we now feel able to make a payment to all artists involved, as we recognise a great many are also experiencing a particularly challenging time at this moment.

“While theatres across the world remain closed, we’re pleased that we can continue to bring the best of British theatre directly into people’s homes every Thursday evening.”

National Theatre at Home is free of charge but should viewers wish to make a donation, money donated via YouTube will be shared with the co-producing theatre organisations of each stream, including Leeds Playhouse, to help support the Playhouse through this period of closure and uncertainty.

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Barber Shop Chronicles playwright Inua Ellams

Charles Hutchinson’s review of Barber Shop Chronicles, Courtyard Theatre, West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds, July 2017. Copyright of The Press, York.

BARBER Shop Chronicles is the first West Yorkshire Playhouse collaboration with the National Theatre, and sure enough it is a cut above the norm.

Leeds is mentioned only in passing – one character has links with the city – but a Chapeltown barber (Stylistics, should you be wondering) was one of the principal inspirations that led Nigerian playwright and poet Inua Ellams to write his joyous, illuminating play.

Barbers have not had a great press on stage, what with Sweeney Todd’s cut-throat business practices in Fleet Street, but that all changes with Ellams’ drama, a series of conversations with the barber often in the position of counsellor.

David Webber (Sizwe) and Fisayo Akinade (Sam) in Barber Shop Chronicles

In Britain, traditionally such conversations would normally not extend beyond asking where you might be going on holiday this summer, sir, or if you needed something for the weekend, or if you had any preferences, to which the answer once came “To sit in silence”.

Not much scope for a play there, then, but it is a different story in the African community, now in London (and Leeds), as much as in Nigeria, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Kenya, Uganda and Ghana, all of which Ellams visited to collect stories for his Chronicles.

The Courtyard has been transformed by Rae Smith into a theatre in the round, well, square, to be precise, with seating on all four sides, and the sign boards of barber shops in London and the various African nations displayed all around the perimeter beneath a globe with a mirrorball that lights up for each change of location, heralded by an a cappella song name-checking each city. In turn, a spotlight picks out the sign for the next barber to be featured.

Patrice Naiambana as Paul in Barber Shop Chronicles

This allows Bijan Sheibani’s ensemble production to flow and fly through its two hours without an interval, the momentum too thrilling to break. We begin and end in Lagos, and the focus then switches back and forth from a London barber shop to one-to-one encounters in Accra, Kampala, Harare and Johannesburg.

A family of barbers is at war in the London shop, although united in supporting Chelsea (in a Champions League encounter with Barcelona), and all manner of subjects come up for discussion: black men and white girls; Patrice Evra versus Luis Suarez; the “N” word and rappers.

There is much humour at play, but serious points too, not least about what it means to be a strong black man, and the family clash cuts deeper than a soap opera.

What’s more, the African chronicles throw you off your guard, reappraising the worth of Nelson Mandela, Robert Mugabe and Fela Kuti. Take a seat….