Samuel Bailey’s Shook, directed by George Turvey in collaboration with James Bobin, tells the story of three young new or soon to be fathers, who are all in prison. The play won the 2019 Papatango New Writing Prize and shows the characters proceed through a series of parenting classes.
The set shows a bleak, simply furnished room, with obviously faded paintwork and fold-up furniture. The play opens with Jonjo (Josef Davies) sitting on one of the fold-up chairs, with his head down as he tries to avoid Cain (Josh Finan), a loud Scouser who knows everything about everyone else and goes to great pains to maintain his own reputation. The play makes good use of the online format by including snippets of black and white CCTV recordings, emphasising the prison environment and giving the piece a sense of voyeurism.
The long silence from Davies, emphasised by his body language showing obvious discomfort and misery, nicely contrasts with Finan’s overconfident, happy-go-lucky attitude. Some balance to the situation is added by Riyad (Ivan Oyik), a quietly confident Londoner, with aspirations to go to university and begin a career his son can be proud of.
Oyik’s frustration over being able to understand maths with ease but struggling to understand parenting because that’s “instinct” comes across well. As the three learn more about parenting, memories of their own childhoods also come to the surface and through talking to each other and their teacher, Grace (Andrea Hall), they deal with their own traumas to some extent. Sadly, the situation is often that prison life is better than their home lives.
The inclusion of dolls in the parenting classes emphasises the sense of distance between the young men and their children in the outside world. A combination of treating these dolls with the care you would a real child and throwing them around like the toys they are, accentuates the layers of the characters who all have both complex pasts and a strong sense of needing to present a certain persona to each other and everyone else around them.
The play is unique as a prison piece in that you never see the characters in their cells, the yard, or any of the other usual settings. Suicide attempts, new inmates and potential releases are talked about onstage but never seen. This focus allows the audience to see life through the eyes of the three men in the class and see them as fathers first and foremost.
There are a number of funny moments throughout the piece, particularly from Finan whose attitude and persona are darkly comical, and also many poignant elements making the play a highly emotional rollercoaster which will make you laugh and cry. Musing over life on the outside and what they’ll do when they get out makes the characters feel very genuine.
The performances are all excellent, particularly the three men who the drama focuses on and it is remarkable that this is Bailey’s debut play. As the play continues it quickly becomes clear that the gap between them and Grace is too big, too much to overcome. The tragedy of their situation and being stuck in a cycle of behaviour which it is difficult to break free from is tangible, and makes a very important point about justice and the way we manage it.
Shook is being streamed until 28th February 2021. Tickets are available here www.papatango.co.uk/shook
Reviewer: Donna M Day
Reviewed: 6th February 2021
North West End UK Rating: ★★★★★