Rob Castell, Tom Sadler, Pete Sorel-Cameron, Lara Stubbs
After Barbershopera Productions took Barbershopera! to the Edinburgh Fringe in 2008, and enjoyed a successful Rural Tour with the show, it only made sense to follow up with a sequel.
Barbershopera II: The Barber of Shavingham premiered at last years Edinburgh Fringe and has now come to the smaller of the two Trafalgar Studios.
With music and lyrics by Rob Castell and Tom Sadler, who also make up half of the four-strong cast, it tells of the adventures of matador Esteve Johnson through song.
Esteve travels from Barcelona to Norfolk to retrieve the golden scissors of Johnny Johnson, his barber father, following his untimely death. There he encounters rival hairdresser Trevor Sorbet, and has to fight for his familys honour, the girl he loves, and the chance to remain in the town of Shavingham.
Needless to say, the show possesses its fair share of knockabout humour, but several things help to raise it to another level. Above all, it is surprisingly surreal. At the sombre funeral of Johnny, the mourners suddenly burst into a Morris dance, which they proclaim to be a traditional Norfolk farewell dance. Similarly, all pairs of scissors are portrayed using thick marker pens, so that the barbers contest to decide who leaves town witnesses the contestants drawing the haircuts onto heads made from balloons.
The singing numbers are also performed with real panache, and, alongside the original compositions, classic music from a variety of genres is used to generate atmosphere. So the barbers sing Toreador as they anticipate victory in the contest, whilst the story of the legendary forging of the golden scissors is accompanied by the Lord of the Rings soundtrack. The lyrics are clever, whether they be simple as in an argument over whether it is animal fights or rights that count, or delightfully convoluted, such as when antiquarian is used to rhyme with Rastafarian. Indeed, it is no surprise that Barbershopera II, like its predecessor, won the Musical Theatre Matters Best Lyrics prize in Edinburgh.
Surprisingly, however, the show is let down by the barbershop element itself. Only the voice of Rob Castell as Esteve feels sufficiently charismatic to work in the style. The others are both pleasing and powerful enough individually, but they lack sufficient colour always to make for a harmonious blend. Things are still at their most effective when we genuinely hear close four-part harmony, but many songs only feature three of the four singers, and rarely do all four sing as equals in a quartet.
Barbershopera II ultimately survives the transition from Edinburgh Fringe to West End and, judging from the audiences reaction, remains a great crowd pleaser. It is made, however, by the high degree of intelligence that underlies its apparent madcap tomfoolery, and not by the barbershop element itself. For this reason, it might have been more appropriately entitled The Barber of Surreal