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Shook by Samuel Bailey at Southwark Playhouse | Review

Josef Davies (Jonjo), Ivan Oyik (Riyad). Credit The Other Richard.
Josef Davies (Jonjo), Ivan Oyik (Riyad). Credit The Other Richard.

Set in a run-down classroom at a young offender institution, three young men, Cain, Riyad and Jonjo, participate in weekly parental lessons with Grace from Family Link, but the chances of actually looking after their own children in the outside world becomes an increasingly unlikely prospect, as even the fate of their own futures seem unclear.

Jasmine Swan’s neglected classroom design, an unkept space with rusted old walls, communicates from the offset that no one with any power or resources cares about it; nor the people who make use of it. Even the strip lights find themselves trapped in rusty metal cages, the harsh light having to fight to escape. There’s a hint of warmth in Johanna’s Town’s lighting design that fills the rest of the room; learning and growth might be possible for this space, but we know the reality of the situation before anything even really happens.

Cain and Jonjo (Josh Finan and Josef Davies) open the play for us, with totally contrasting demeanours and expressions, exposing the two opposing responses to the situation. Finan plays the part as an attention-seeking wind up, hardly taking pause for breath. He skips around the space like a child on a sugar rush. It’s like he’s scared to stop moving or talking, using this energy as some sort of coping mechanism. He makes jokes, more and less successful at times, but when he makes one that works his face transitions to a beaming pride. It’s like he’s always in a boxing ring, ready for a fight. Any moment and he could suddenly turn on someone. And eventually he does, in the most devastating moment of the play. He garners heaps of sympathy when revealing he has no home to go to; he hardly knows the meaning of the word anymore. And he’s stuck in a broken system. They all are.

Jonjo on the other end of the spectrum speaks only when absolutely necessary. Davies moves cautiously from space to space, swaying side to side, often slightly hunched, trying to hide himself, with a stammer in his voice and subtle tick in his mouth. Ivan Oyik as the third inmate to join the class remains totally composed, unflinching at Finan’s efforts to provoke.

Delivering the sessions is Grace, played by Andrea Hall. Grace’s character development falls short compared to the others, and a sudden explosive response in the latter half seems inauthentic. It’s also a shame that the only real essence of a life outside of this room we get from Grace is about the time she was ballooned pregnant in a hot summer. Yes, she’s there in a support role, but I feel like she could’ve been written with a bit more roundedness. This sort of leads me to an overall feeling that this story doesn’t seem to exist outside of the room; there’s something odd about the way that time passes through the story. It’s often hard to distinguish one week from the next, save the changing session numbers on the whiteboard, and ultimately the physical reality of the space seems limited.

The three men all eventually find their objectives, but it takes a little time to get to them, and once there the stakes remain fairy levelled. It becomes easy to forget that Jonjo is desperate for a visit from his mum, and whilst the investment in Cain’s potential release and Riyad’s GCSE examination become enticements for the audience’s investment, I’m not sure we develop enough attachment to the characters to be routing for them as much as we need to. But then this is about a system that neglects its inmates, so perhaps this somewhat impersonable rapport is with purpose. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter being taught how to parent or how to pass a maths exam. What starts as a play about parenting becomes much more widely contextualised to be a play about the failure of the institution.

And maybe this play tries to tackle too much in the given time frame. Rather than focussing on a single story as the main arc, the attempt to tell us three creates a somewhat diluted product. It is certainly the work of the three leading actors that keeps this play on its toes, with deft direction from George Turvey, and an overall care for the core message which doesn’t feel fleshed out enough to leave the lingering effect I think it’s trying to achieve.

3 Star Review

Review by Joseph Winer

He’ll look different. My little boy. When I get out. Like… to the picture I’ve got in my head. Be like meeting him all over again. Be a whole new start.

Instead of GCSEs, Cain, Riyad and Jonjo got sentences. Locked up in a young offenders’ institution, they trade sweets, chat shit, kill time – and await fatherhood.
Grace’s job is to turn these teenagers into parents, ready to take charge of their futures. But can they grow up quickly enough to escape the system?
Winner of the 2019 Papatango New Writing Prize from a record 1,406 entries, Samuel Bailey’s debut full production tenderly and honestly examines the young men society shuts away.

Papatango presents the world première of
Shook
by Samuel Bailey
Director George Turvey
Set and Costume Designer Jasmine Swan
Lighting Designer Johanna Town
Sound Designer Richard Hammarton
Papatango today announces the full cast for the world première of Samuel Bailey’s Shook – this
The company’s Artistic Director George Turvey directs Josef Davies (Jonjo), Josh Finan (Cain), Andrea Hall (Grace), and Ivan Oyik (Riyad).

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