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Shebeen at Theatre Royal Stratford East | Review

Shebeen: June 2018 Nottingham Playhouse (L-R) Chloe Harris, Theo Solomon, Karl Collins and Martina Laird.
Shebeen: June 2018 Nottingham Playhouse (L-R) Chloe Harris, Theo Solomon, Karl Collins and Martina Laird.

These threescore and ten years later, it’s been a literal, Biblical lifetime since the docking of the Empire Windrush in London with its thousand-plus West Indian immigrants. As is well and frequently told, they were in search of a new life in a supposedly grateful and accommodating Britain with its own pressing problems of postwar reconstruction.

In view of what happened, for good and for ill, in this deceptively dubbed Mother Country, it is no wonder that the stories of a nation and its newcomers should, if you can forgive the tidal analogy, wash regularly into public consciousness. Perhaps never more so than now, with the dire controversies surrounding the civic “legitimacy” of veterans of the Windrush generation.

While the race riots in Notting Hill a decade later were making national headlines, there were other, less well-publicised disturbances erupting elsewhere. One such was in the St. Ann’s district of Nottingham, home of this play’s author Mufaro Makubika, who was born in Zimbabwe and came to England when he was sixteen.

His play takes place over a period of twenty-four hours in the shebeen, or unlicensed bar, run by George and his wife Pearl in St. Ann’s, which was then home to some two and a half thousand Caribbean migrants. He is a former
boxing champion who has renounced that trade in order to raise a family, while Pearl, pointedly more maternal than her adopted country, runs an open-house, open-minded and utterly illegal establishment. Not so much a pub as an ongoing party, full of singing, dancing, remembrance, hope… and round-the-clock flouting of British by-laws.

And then there is Mrs. Clark from down the road, white, working-class, indigenous and at the end of her tether on account of these noisy neighbours. She may not have moved, but the world around has done that for her, turning
her decent, law-abiding etc patch, and by extension her country, into a place of utter foreignness. Worse, unspeakably worse, her daughter Mary has fallen for Linford, who is young, handsome and black.

Echoes of such doomed stage alliances as Romeo and Juliet and their musical descendants Tony and Maria. Not so much West Side as East Midlands Story, in which Mary’s Mum just can’t find the words, let alone the acceptance, for this, as she sees it, forced relegation to racial minority. It was, of course, to such people’s understandable distress that Enoch Powell was to address his infamous Rivers of Blood speech another decade on. Naturally, the presentation of Mrs. Clark and her predicament is pivotal, and Makubika, aided by Hazel Ellerby’s performance, manages that brand of fairness which a certain England likes to regard as its birthright.

If you can get over the slight clunkiness of this love-plot, there is a tragic grandeur to the play, in which the authority figures targeted by Makubika shift from the state and its laughable police to the parents and their ultimate powerlessness. Black farce? Of course, but white as well.

As the central couple George and Pearl, Karl Collins and Martina Laird embody a difficult blend of deference and defiance, with Rolan Bell outstanding as their friend and shebeen fixture Earnest, who, under Matthew Xia’s deft
direction, matures from the function of a comic chorus to that of a pained commentator. Like an amusing child who is left with no choice but to come of age.

The opening night audience at Stratford was more black than white, in roughly the same ratio as the cast. There were moments, reassuringly frequent, when they were united in outrage. None more so than when Mrs. Clark loses it completely and comes out with the three-letter W-word (Wog, in case you’d forgotten.) This is a contemporary play all right, partly because of the fresh resonances of that other W-word, Windrush. But it’s historical too and some – not all, but some – of the casual abuse has just about passed from the language.

Credit to designer Grace Smart for a set which graphically shows the vulnerability of home to the forces which surround it.

4 stars

Review by Alan Franks

Set in 1958 St Ann’s, Nottingham, Shebeen provides a glimpse into the lives of the Caribbean community in 1950s England and focusses on the uncomfortable realities of racial tension within local communities.

Written by Nottingham local Mufaro Makubika, the play follows the journey of Jamaican immigrant couple George (Karl Collins) and Pearl (Martina Laird) and the forbidden parties they throw at their shebeen – an illegal bar set up in their home that sells illicit alcohol.

Directed by: Matthew Xia
Written by: Mufaro Makubika
At Theatre Royal Stratford East
Gerry Raffles Square, London E15 1BN
20th June to 7th July 2018


  • Alan Franks

    Alan Franks is one of the senior reviewers for LondonTheatre1.com, contributing regularly with reviews for London and regional shows, as well as reporting on press launches. Alan Franks was a Times feature writer for more than thirty years, specialising in the arts and interviewing many leading actors, writers and directors, including Arthur Miller, Peter Hall, Woody Allen, Judi Dench and Stephen Sondheim. He is the author of several plays, including The Mother Tongue starring Prunella Scales, and his latest novel, The Notes of Dr. Newgate, is published by Muswell Press. http://www.alanfranks.com

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1 thought on “Shebeen at Theatre Royal Stratford East | Review”

  1. Veronica Hinds

    Brilliant acting and performance , spellbound and thoroughly enjoyed this play. My friends thought it was amazing!

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