Saturday, February 6, 2021

SHOOK (Papatango Theatre Company)****


By Cal


Available until: 28th February 2021

Shook won the Papatango New Writing Prize in 2019. It went on to have a short run at the Southwark Playhouse, but a planned run at the Trafalgar Studios last year had to be cancelled along with the rest of the West End shows.

It tells the story of three boys in a detention centre. They’re all either a father or about to become a father and they’re all given special classes in the art of being a father, including nappy-changing and (though you’d seriously hope the skill will never be needed) performing mouth-to-mouth resuscitation on a baby.

Samuel Bailey’s writing is sharp, incisive and bold. If there is a slight weakness, it’s that the play seems more episodic than a continuing story, but you could actually say this is a strength. In life, we don’t really have a story. It’s more like episodes. Shook feels almost painfully real. It’s one of those plays you watch in a state of tension; almost fear because you don’t know what’s going to happen next and you just hope it isn’t something bad because… you like these boys. At least, I do.

The emotion builds and builds and there’s a sense that something will happen… then something has happened, but you don’t always know what because nobody is really saying anything. It’s a really clever device and it works, firstly because the writing is so good and secondly because it’s realistic for these characters not to talk. They’re teenage boys and they’re in a situation where it’s even more imperative that they don’t show their weaknesses. They keep their emotions inside till they burst out. Whether it’s violent, uncontrollable anger that we witness (nearly all verbal: there is very little onstage violence in this play) or the horrible, tense, nerve-wracking feeling that something has happened and we don’t know what, the play is powerful and engrossing. If you’re not feeling a little ‘shook’ by the end, I’ll be surprised.

The boys are all in the same place and they share fatherhood in common, but they are very different characters. Cain is a tightened coil of energy, lashing out in all directions, angry one minute and frightening but also frightened. Josh Finan’s performance is excellent, not just in terms of showing Cain’s personality and disturbing lack of control, but in making us care for someone who’s never really had a chance and probably wouldn’t know what to do if he got one. He likes to think he’s someone who can handle himself – but could he handle the world?

Josef Davies’ sensitive, stammering Jonjo is the one you sympathise with immediately and feel concern for. There’s a great sense of vulnerability in the performance and although he’s quieter than the others, and often hunched in on himself, Josef’s stage presence never allows him to fade into the background. He also provides some gentleness in a play of harshness and hard edges.

Riyad, played by Ivan Oyik, is perhaps the most interesting of all. He’s tough, authoritative and assertive, but there are also sides of Riyad that might surprise you. There’s so much potential in Riyad, and I’m not just talking about his intellectual ability. He could have real opportunities. If only life will allow it.

No other prisoners appear, but we hear about them. We know who might cause trouble, and the different ways in which they might do it. The fact they don’t appear could make them seem almost unreal; no particular threat. But from the way they’re described, it’s almost as though you can see them. Even if they won’t burst through the door at any moment, they could burst into the middle of the boys’ lives. And anything could happen.

The only other character who appears is Grace, a teacher who gives the boys their ‘dad’ lessons. Andrea Hall does her best with the character, but we only see her at work, with the metaphorical mask clearly in place. She seems more a plot device than a character; a trigger for many of the key moments in the play, good and bad. It’s a shame she’s undeveloped as a character, but it’s also realistic – we don’t know her any better than the boys do. And, although she’s far from easily intimidated, perhaps there is a (possibly sexist) sense of unease in seeing a woman with an aggressively angry young man who is considered dangerous for a reason.

It would be nice to think Shook might get its chance in the future, but the Trafalgar Studios have been transformed from two small studios into one large one, the Trafalgar Theatre. It is possible the intimacy of this striking piece will be lost in a larger theatre, but I really hope there will be a chance for a West End run in the future.

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