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….

National Theatre At Home to screen Jane Eyre on YouTube for free from Thursday

The National Theatre’s Jane Eyre: on the NT’s YouTube channel

THE National Theatre’s celebrated production of Jane Eyre will be shown on the NT’s YouTube channel for free on Thursday at 7pm.

This will be the second in the two-month series of National Theatre At Home screenings that was launched with One Man, Two Guvnors last Thursday, since when more than two million people have watched Hull playwright Richard Bean’s comic romp.

Cookson’s re-imagining of Charlotte Brontë’s inspiring Yorkshire story of trailblazing Jane was first staged by Bristol Old Vic in 2015 and transferred to the National in the same year with a revival in 2017.

In May that year, the National Theatre’s touring production visited the Grand Opera House, York, for a week’s run, winning the “Stage Production of the Year in York Made outside York” award in the annual Hutch Awards in The Press, York.

Cookson’s bold, innovative and dynamic production uncovers one woman’s fight for freedom and fulfilment on her own terms. From her beginnings as a destitute orphan, spirited Jane Eyre faces life’s obstacles head on, surviving poverty, injustice and the discovery of bitter betrayal before taking the ultimate decision to follow her heart.

During this unprecedented time of the enforced shutdown of theatres, cinemas and schools in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, National Theatre At Home is providing access to content online to serve audiences in their homes.

Audiences around the world can stream NT Live productions for free via YouTube every Thursday at 7pm BST and each one will then be available on demand for seven days.

Coming next after Jane Eyre will be Bryony Lavery’s adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island from April 16 and Shakespeare’s comedy Twelfth Night, starring Tamsin Greig as Malvolio, from April 23. Further titles will be announced.

Alongside the streamed productions, National Theatre At Home will feature accompanying interactive content, such as question-and-answer sessions with cast and creative teams and post-stream talks. Further details of this programme will follow.

National Theatre Live turned ten on June 25 last year: the date of the first such broadcast in 2009, namely Phédre, starring Helen Mirren. Over those ten years, more than 80 theatre productions have been shown in 3,500 venues worldwide, reaching an overall audience of more than ten million.

NT Live now screens in 2,500 venues across 65 countries. Recent broadcasts include Cyrano de Bergerac with James McAvoy; Noel Coward’s Present Laughter with Andrew Scott; Fleabag with Phoebe Waller-Bridge; Arthur Miller’s All My Sons with Sally Field and Bill Pullman; All About Eve with Gillian Anderson and Lily James; Shakespeare’s Antony And Cleopatra with Ralph Fiennes and Sophie Okonedo; Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar with David Morrissey and Ben Whishaw and Tennessee Williams’s Cat On A Hot Tin Roof with Sienna Miller.

Here is Charles Hutchinson’s review of the National Theatre’s Jane Eyre when it played the Grand Opera House, York, in May 2017, published in The Press, York. Please note, the cast differed from the one to be seen in the National Theatre Live performance on YouTube from Thursday.

Nadia Clifford as Jane Eyre in the National Theatre’s touring production of Jane Eyre at the Grand Opera House, York, in May 2017

YOU will not see a better theatre show in York this year, and you won’t have seen a better theatre show in York since The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-Time.

For those who want their National Theatre to be for everyone, and not only for London, then the Grand Opera House is doing a fine job of bringing the NT north, thanks to the pulling power of the GOH’s owners, the Ambassador Theatre Group.

Your reviewer cannot urge you enough to see Sally Cookson’s remarkable interpretation of Charlotte Bronte’s no less remarkable novel. Yes, some of the ticket prices are on a Premier League scale, but this is Premier League theatre. What’s more, Jane Eyre is a Yorkshire story, back on home turf after Cookson’s premiere at the Bristol Old Vic and subsequent transfer to the South Bank.

Rather than being adapted for the stage with a plodding narrator, this is a devised production of vivid, vital imagination. Michael Vale’s set is rough hewn, gutted to the minimum, with wooden flooring and walkways, a proliferation of ladders, a sofa, and yet it evokes everything of Bronte’s harsh world.

Cookson’s cast is multi role-playing, aside from Nadia Clifford’s Jane Eyre, who never once leaves the stage in three hours (interval aside), changing costumes in full view with the assistance of fellow cast members.

The story hurtles along so fast, the ensemble company runs on the spot between scenes to the accompaniment of thunderous drums, and they even take a mock piddle at one point in the rush to crack on: one of the comic elements to counter the grimness up north.

Energy, energy, energy! And that applies not only to Clifford’s feisty, fiery Jane Eyre, whose accent may curve towards her native North West, but that in no way lessens her performance.

The cast as a whole is magnificent, be it Tim Delap’s troubled Rochester, Evelyn Miller’s triptych of Bessie, Blanche Ingram and St John; Paul Mundell’s austere Mr Brocklehurst and tail-wagging Pilot the dog; Lynda Rooke’s chalk and cheese Mrs Reed and Mrs Fairfax or surely-too-good-to-be-an understudy Francesca Tomlinson’s five-hand of roles.

There is so much more that makes Cookson’s production so startling, movingly brilliant: the sound design of Dominic Bilkey, the inexhaustible movement direction of Dan Canham; the beautiful, haunting compositions of Benji Bower for the on-stage band of David Ridley, Alex Heane and Matthew Churcher, who join in ensemble scenes too and never take their gaze off the action.

Last, but very definitely not least, is Melanie Marshall, the diva voice of Bertha Mason, a one-woman Greek chorus whose versions of Mad About The Boy and Gnarls Barkley’s Crazy will linger like Jane Eyre in the memory.

May 2017