Review: Shook

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At this time of year you may be excused for thinking that a trip to theatre must involve fat men in drag and fairy godmothers. But you’d be wrong. Because while the Marlowe’s main auditorium is awash with glitter sprinkles and golden eggs, the studio is hosting an altogether different kind of play.

At this time of year, you may be excused for thinking that a trip to theatre must involve fat men in drag and fairy godmothers. But you’d be wrong. Because while the Marlowe’s main auditorium is awash with glitter sprinkles and golden eggs, the studio is hosting an altogether different kind of play.

Shook is playwright Sam Bailey’s debut full production and is on the final leg of a small five theatre world premiere tour. This is just about as fresh as theatre can get. And it’s also very, very good.

The whole play takes place in a single classroom in a young offender’s institution, and follows three young men, Cain, Jonjo and Riyad and their teacher, Grace. The play opens as the ebullient and very Scouse Cain is giving the newly arrived Jonjo some tips about how to get by in the institution. This extraordinary monologue sets the tone of the play – it is full of bravado, anger, suppressed emotion and deep insecurity. Jonjo sits impassively throughout, his mouth twitching with some unexplored emotion. It feels as if Cain will explode without someone to respond to him and there is palpable relief when Riyad arrives bringing his own type of insecurity and bravado.

The key conceit of the play is that these three young men are there to learn about the basics of childcare. In spite of their youth, all three are fathers (though Jonjo’s child is yet to be born). They must learn to change nappies, feed, and even perform CPR, all the time using the plastic dolls that Grace provides. Through their conversations with Grace and with each other, the young men are forced to confront their own childhood traumas. The emotional force of the play, and indeed some or the humour, comes from the tension that results, as each of them seeks to share something of their pain without appearing “soft”.

Having worked with children in care, I can attest to the authenticity that Sam Bailey’s writing brings to this work. The dialogue which zings between Josh Finan’s Cain and Ivan Oyik’s Riyad feels like its been taken straight off the street, full of slang and humour. When Jonjo expresses an interest in taking history, Cain is quick to bridle – “Did you know something boring happened to someone really fucking ugly ages ago? There you go, Here’s your history GCSE”. Again and again, Bailey captures the way that young men use humour and bravado to hide their insecurities and fears.

But he also shows what happens when the veil slips. Perhaps one of the most heartbreaking moments of the play happens when Riyad discovers that Cain has an opportunity to get early release but isn’t taking it. “You don’t use that to get out of here, blud, I’ll f***ing kill you!”. “This place here”, Cain responds, “is like Butlin’s to me. It’s like a holiday compared to where I’m from”. It is a sentiment that hovers above the dialogue all the time – the sense that for all its faults, the boredom and the violence, the institution provides these men with a sense of belonging that their families never gave.

Although the play never leaves the confines of the classroom, it does place the stories of the young men within a broader political and social context. When Cain rails against the prison governor, he says of him and, implicitly, his class that “they should just come clean and admit they just don’t like us and that’s why they locked us up in here”. In one telling line Bailey captures the sense of alienation and division that informs the outlook of many such young men. But he also avoids cliché by seasoning such insight with bathos. When Jonjo reponds: “Didn’t you b-beat someone up in a newsagent?”, Cain can only retort “That’s not the f***ing point!”.

I really can’t recommend this play highly enough. The four cast members bring visceral emotion to this intimate performance. With humour and insight, they tell the story of the young men today who will be tomorrow’s fathers but who are also struggling to deal with the mistakes of their own fathers. It is also a timely reminder of the role that teachers like Grace play day in, day out in trying to mend the lives of our children.

Shook is playwright Sam Bailey’s debut full production and is on the final leg of a small five theatre world premiere tour. This is just about as fresh as theatre can get. And it’s also very, very good.

The whole play takes place in a single classroom in a young offender’s institution, and follows three young men, Cain, Jonjo and Riyad and their teacher, Grace. The play opens as the ebullient and very Scouse Cain is giving the newly arrived Jonjo some tips about how to get by in the institution. This extraordinary monologue sets the tone of the play – it is full of bravado, anger, suppressed emotion and deep insecurity. Jonjo sits impassively throughout, his mouth twitching with some unexplored emotion. It feels as if Cain will explode without someone to respond to him and there is palpable relief when Riyad arrives bringing his own type of insecurity and bravado.

The key conceit of the play is that these three young men are here to learn about the basics of childcare. All three are fathers.They must learn to change nappies, feed, even perform CPR, all the time using the plastic dolls that Grace provides. The young men are forced to confront their own childhood traumas and in spite of their best attempts to maintain their “reps”, we gradually learn the stories that brought them there.

Having worked with children in care, I can attest to the authenticity that Sam Bailey’s writing brings to this work. The dialogue which zings between Josh Finan’s Cain and Ivan Oyik’s Riyad feels like its been taken straight off the street, full of slang and humour. When Jonjo expresses an interest in taking history, Cain is quick to bridle – “Did you know something boring happened to someone really fucking ugly ages ago? There you go, Here’s your history GCSE”. Again and again, Cain captures the way that young men use humour and bravado to hide their insecurities and fears.

But he also shows what happens when the veil slips. Perhaps one of the most heartbreaking moments of the play happens when Riyad encourages Cain take the opportunity to talk to the victim of his crime as a way of getting to go home. “This place here”, Cain responds, “is like Butlin’s to me. It’s like a holiday compared to where I’m from”. It is a sentiment that hovers above the dialogue all the time – the sense that for all its faults, the boredom and the violence, the institution is Cain’s chosen home.

I really can’t recommend this play highly enough. The four cast members bring visceral emotion to this intimate perfmorance and with humour and insight, tell the story of young men today who will be tomorrow’s fathers but who are also struggling to deal with the mistakes of their own fathers. It is also timely reminder of the role that teachers like Grace play day in, day out in trying to mend the lives of our children.

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