Shook – Southwark Playhouse, London

Writer: Samuel Bailey

Director: George Turvey

Reviewer: Maryam Philpott

Already the winner of a new playwriting prize, the premiere of Samuel Bailey’s Shook set in a young offenders’ institute comes loaded with expectation. The judges of the Papatango prize clearly spotted something a bit special in Bailey’s writing and this debut production at Southwark Playhouse, directed by George Turvey, rages at the unfairness of a system stacked against young with nothing to lose but hope.

Attending parenting classes for children they will probably never even see, Riyad, Cain and new boy Jonjo make uneasy classmates. As Grace tries to teach them how to change nappies and perform baby CPR, their confinement leads to revelations about their crimes and lives beyond the prison. As they start to find common ground, new opportunities are offered up to individuals but with an ambiguous future ahead of them can they really find a new path?

Bailey’s play is notable both for its fast-paced dialogue and strong character creation which is clear from the very first scene as hyperactive Cain talks relentlessly at pensive newcomer Jonjo, and with the arrival of Riyad soon afterwards Bailey very quickly creates a sense of prison life with its hierarchies of respect based on longevity of sentence as well as the permanent undercurrents of violence that create sporadic bursts of activity.

But unlike many prison plays which focus almost exclusively on these experiences, Bailey has particularly captured the complex tug-of-war between the reputational posturing necessary to survive and the sensitivities that each man quietly nurtures beneath the surface where painful abandonment by their families and fear of their future prospects sit alongside a rarely acknowledged concern that they will never see their children. So, while Shook is a play with limited plot development, Bailey presents a finely tuned character study that uses a deftly balanced comic pathos to reveal the educational and institutional botches that have systematically failed these men.

Bailey’s dialogue is often very funny combining dialect and colloquial language in quite specific rhythms for each character that is often batted back and forth at a considerable rate. There is a punchiness to some of these interactions that in Turvey’s tightly controlled production create moments of chaotic energy as Cain in particular rails against his confinement, contrasted quite starkly with sudden introspective or revelatory sections in which the fragility of their interior life is exposed.

Josh Finan’s Cain gets much of the play’s humour as a repeat offender who distracts from the boredom by constantly ribbing the other prisoners, transgressing boundaries and trying to force a reaction from them. But in a character who could easily be annoying, Finan suggests just enough of Cain’s wider circumstances including a sense of inferiority that prevent him from breaking his patterns of behaviour.

As Riyad Ivan Oyik is the most placid of the three men and the one with the highest hopes for the next phase of his life. By taking multiple classes he hopes that study and further academic application will give him a different future, but Oyik also shows the mask of nonchalance and bravado that Riyad wears which unknowingly make his new future harder to obtain.

Jonjo is the character who reveals the least and although often silent and nervy, we know there is a tendency to extreme violence which Josef Davies implies. While he starts to integrate with Riyad and Cain as the story unfolds, there is more Bailey could do with this character. Likewise, Andrea Hall’s Grace is little more than a catalyst with little independent personality of her own.

Shook is a play that offers a different perspective on modern masculinity, one in which violence and ego exist but are tempered and even explained by a paternal affection that emerges as these men grow towards the idea of being a father. Yet in the powerful final scene Bailey lets that hope crash headlong into reality, knowing they never really had a chance. A powerful message from a prize-winning debut playwright.

Runs until 23 November 2019

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