It’s the next day now and I am still shook by Shook. I cannot believe that this is the debut piece of writing from Samuel Bailey: it is masterful, clever and just so very affective, in a variety of ways.
Issues of masculinity concerning youth violence, lack of male role models and male suicide have been recognised for years. Here, Bailey skilfully packages them, knotting them inescapably together with threads of institutionalisation, racism, and educational inequality, to create a fragile, explosive capsule.
The play is set in a young offenders’ institution. CCTV images remind us we’re observing from outside, as its inmates and the normalised horror of their lives are put under a microscope. It’s a classroom; a place of education usually reserved for children, but here three teenage inmates are learning to care. Although they are practically kids themselves, they prepare to look after their own babies, which they can’t be with because they are incarcerated.
In Grace’s (Andrea Hall) parenting class, conversations between Cain (Josh Finan), Jonjo (Josef Davies), and Riyad (Ivan Oyik) reveal backgrounds filled with gaps, of parents missing, education lacking, and aspiration that is routinely quashed; new starts abruptly ended. The prison currency comprises Chupa Chups and violence, traded in equal measure. Riyad’s toughened up, but he dreams of better things and works hard, all whilst the system sets him up to fail. Jonjo is traumatised, vulnerable, and missing his dog. With Grace as an almost-parent, almost-teacher, not quite fitting any clear role, their relationship with the outside through her feels as artificial as the plastic babies they care for. Johanna Town’s stark lighting and Jasmine Swan’s bleak set underscore the absence of human comfort, in a room where hugging is not allowed.
Gobby Scouser Cain is constantly bragging, threatening, challenging; his thick Liverpudlian accent accentuating the unintelligibility of what he spews out, and the crucifix round his neck negated by his brutality. It’s really hard to like the guy. Yet, within that brash behaviour Cain is funny; he’s full of information and advice he just wants to share. We gradually learn why he doesn’t know how to behave: this obnoxious persona just protects the little boy within who has never received the help he needs. Finan is astonishing in this role, reaching heights of manic energy, yet dragging us deeply into understanding the pathos and tragedy of Cain’s life. Without a doubt he’s a loser, but we are challenged to recognise a system that made him that way. And why things won’t change for him and all its other victims. We are shown a toxicity that is cyclical: unable to escape, it feeds back into itself, and inevitably it won’t end well for anyone.
The play’s claustrophobic intensity is complemented by the small screen format, but I can only imagine how incendiary it will be on stage. There are some genuinely humorous moments here, but these are juxtaposed with intense poignancy, sensitively handled by a very talented cast. Bailey’s cutting social commentary challenges us to carefully examine the volatile issues we currently lock away, in order to learn how to break a cycle of destruction in the future.
Written by: Samuel Bailey
Directed by: George Turvey and James Bobin
Produced by: Papatango Theatre Company
Shook is available to watch online until 28 March 2021 at Papatango’s website below. Tickets are £10.