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John Yap

Review: SHOOK at Southwark Playhouse, London

Shook - Southwark Playhouse Samuel Bailey’s hard hitting, realistic and thought provoking play, SHOOK, winner of the 2019 Papatango New Writing Prize, receives its World premiere at the Southwark Playhouse in London.

The setting is in a young offenders institute classroom. Cain (16 years), Riyad (16 years) and Jonjo (17 years), all young fathers, attend their daily class lessons under the tutorage of Grace as part of the rehabilitation and preparation of fatherhood for when they are released. They have all committed violent crimes. Cain is supremely cocky, full of himself and loud. He spits out his words like a machine gun. He is also uneducated and cannot read. He likes to think of himself as an experienced adult with his constant references to sex and sexual organs but he loves his lollipops and action films. In reality, he is a coward and whimpers “like a girl” when hit. Riyad is the serious one with aspirations of going to college to excel in his mathematics and become a successful businessman. He is also a joker with a violent temper. Although he gives the impression that he is educated, it is a lie because he does not know much, other than mathematics. Jonjo is the quiet and considerate one. He speaks slowly with a slight stutter and so belies his violent streak. They all have one thing in common, they are ostracized by society and their families.

If this is an indication of Bailey’s writing talents, we can look forward to many more interesting and thought provoking plays to come. Bailey has developed and honed his writing skills at the Bristol Old Vic, Tobacco Factory Theatre, the Old Vic and the Orange Tree. He was born in London and grew up in the Midlands. His writing is so skilful, that we soon forget that we are watching actors playing characters and we empathize with them as if they were real people. Perhaps it is because he got the street talk and the institution language down to a tee. However, it can be quite difficult for some people, certainly for me, to catch every word because they are almost like a foreign language. With the good and well considered writing, it does not matter because the gist of the conversation is always apparent and clear. The strong and amazing acting from the actors, especially the three young men who play Cain (Josh Finan), Riyad (Ivan Oyik) and Jonjo (Josef Davies) add to the success of the play. Andrea Hall who plays Grace is equally as good, in her understated calm manner. George Turvey, the director who co-founded Papatango, the producers of this production, paces and controls the different explosive situations of the three boys firmly and holds our interests and attention for the 90 minutes of the play.

The play could have fallen into the current trend of contemporary plays, which contain series of scenes of situations and incidents, without dramatic context or storylines. Bailey’s writing does more in that it conjures up vividly the monotony and brutalizing of the boys’ lives by such young offenders’ institutions. Two little exchanges at the end of the play bring home to us the uncomfortable realization of how society fails these young boys. The system fails by not recognizing that these boys need more than just lessons on how to change a baby’s nappy or how to study for a Mathematic exam. They need human contact, affection and care most of all.

The first exchange:

Cain: (Speaking to Grace) Telling us we can go off and change our lives and be different but its just fucking words, isn’t it? You don’t understand! You’re not listening, are yer? It’s up here (pointing to his head) that’s the fucking problem. It’s too late. It’s already fucking happened. And you can’t change it.

The second, at the very end of the play:

Jonjo: Can I have a h-h-hug, miss?
Grace: No. I’m not allowed. You know that.
Jonjo: Right, miss

I highly recommend this play to those wanting to catch the first play of a future notable playwright and the amazing performances of the three young actors. It is not only thought provoking but is also very laugh out funny.