There are, of course, countless completed and in rehearsal productions which fell victim to the pandemic and which may never again see the light of day. It’s not putting it mildly to say that theatre has faced a bleak time over the last ten months and that is particularly true for new voices trying to break through. One such is the winner of the 2019 Papatango new writing prize, Samuel Bailey for his play Shook.
Following a critically acclaimed run at Southwark Playhouse, a transfer to the West End’s Trafalgar Studios was in progress when lockdown intervened. The play has now emerged in a filmed version so we can see what the “noise” was all about. And it’s a noise that is well worth your time.
Shook is a hard-hitting slice of life drama set in a young offenders’ institution which examines toxic masculinity and society’s response to the same. It is set in a communal classroom and Jasmine Swan’s set design clearly reinforces the bleakness the characters face. The play revolves around three inmates who while conforming to certain stereotypes in this sort of scenario have also been invested with deeper characterisation, especially as revealed through their slowly emerging backstories.
Riyad (Ivan Oyik) is the king pin, effortlessly dominating the hierarchical structure, not averse to violence whether verbal or physical; he has a degree of talent with maths and may be able to use this as a way forward once he gets out. Jonjo (Josef Davies) is the new boy, quiet and withdrawn finding himself where he is for an out of character random act and desperately missing his family and his dog. His outward demeanour perhaps conceals a stronger level of resilience than the others. Cain (Josh Finan) falls somewhere between the two as a motormouth Scouser who claims to be expert at everything but has been sadly let down by the inadequacy of his support network. He compensates with endless repetitive banter and self-aggrandisement.
And its Finan that grabs and retains the attention throughout, firing on all cylinders and producing a performance of repressed anger and soaring verbosity. He is adept at spotting and pinpointing any perceived weakness in the other pair and tries to exploit it to divert attention from his own internal plight. The last section of the play, in which he lays bare his soul, is particularly powerful and leaves a vivid impression. Oyik and Davies are equally convincing and director George Turvey orchestrates a powerful dance of personal power politics which will not help the characters in the long run. The fact that this trio are all on the cusp of parenthood while being little more than children themselves is tellingly ironic. They are still trying to go through the basics of education, board games feature heavily and the institutional trading currency is, tellingly, sweets.
Trying to find a way through the bruised egos and latent and not so latent aggression of the pecking order (and boy do they peck) is Grace the tutor/instructor who is there to dispense parenting skills. The one less successful element of the play is that she is rather underdrawn; she clearly has some issues of her own but there is no way for these to be successfully explored and Andrea Hall is left with somewhat of a cipher rather than a rounded character to play. Fortunately, Bailey’s grasp on his other three characters is sure and certain and his vivid dialogue promises great things for the future. It is encouraging that this play has been given a new lease of life through this video release.
Papatango are changing the format of their new writing prize this year in response to the pandemic. Rather than an outright victor and a staged production, three winners will be chosen with each receiving £2,000 and the promise of their script becoming an audio production. Further details of the scheme can be accessed here. The 2020 winner (Old Bridge by Igor Memic) is stuck in production limbo; let’s hope it can reach the stage soon. Meanwhile Shook on film is a welcome blast of fresh air that is fully deserving of your attention.