Shook – Southwark Playhouse

Samuel Bailey’s interrogation of the justice system has savage humour and tenderness

Josh Finan and Ivan Oyik in Shook

Presented in a pre-recorded production currently streaming online, Samuel Bailey’s excellent debut play Shook stages the weekly parenting classes attended by three expectant fathers, who are inmates of a young offenders’ institution. It opens with a dedication to ‘all the productions that never were’ and though it was recorded without an audience, the experience remains a thrillingly theatrical coruscation, not so much of the prisons themselves as the logic that traps people inside them.

As might be expected in a play about young offenders, at its heart is the perennial theme of whether society is wrong to write off its most anti-social members. Yet it is determinism itself that Bailey aims at, a mode of thought that causes the writing off. Imprisonment extends far beyond the prison walls, not only in the inequalities of wealth and education, but most sharply within the self-deprecating minds of its characters.

Bailey begins by stating his theme in a somewhat innocuous way, when Riyad asks his fellow inmates Jonjo and Cain whether they know anything about star signs. It transpires that his potential girlfriend is reconsidering him on this basis, ‘talking about how she’s a water sign and how our alignment is off or some bullshit.’ It remains unspoken how much this is her real motivation, or just a convenient excuse – though in both cases Riyad ends up written off, either for his star sign or his criminal record. Star signs are very much the thin end of a deterministic wedge, though Bailey shows there is a similarly baseless logic to the assumption that some people will reoffend.

We are made to consider our own expectations. Cain, the most immediately threatening of the three, shares a name with the first Biblical murderer. Does the name embody an inevitable escalation of the violence he has already perpetrated, or does it play upon our deterministic mindsets to lead us to an unfounded conclusion? Bailey makes little excuse for their violence. Instead, he holds the destructive potential of them being written off in constant tension with the characters’ own destructive potential.

The play’s title refers to Riyad’s observation – aimed primarily at Cain, though really is as much a reflection on himself – that ‘When it gets hard, they get shook and come back to what they know’. Riyad has internalised the view that they have no other option. When Cain is offered the chance to reduce his sentence through a restorative justice programme, he becomes defensive – ashamed even. The idea of apologising publicly makes him seem weak. Here Bailey targets what he sees as a corrosive force in young men especially, a toxic masculinity that centres an over-determined idea of male-ness.

Bailey is particularly effective in his creation of the prison environment, aided by Jasmine Swan’s set and costume design. Small details really bring the setting to life. The aesthetic juxtaposition created is remarkable: near-grown men made to look like children. In the streamed production, the characters are played by actors far older than their 16- and 17-year-old ages, though this rarely disturbs the play’s realism.

Bailey suggests that there is a fundamental uncertainty at the heart of the institution over its purpose. Though it is not an adult prison, aesthetically it appears like one oddly mixed with a primary school. Everything inside the institution is a pretend version of life on the outside, one a child would play. The dolls meet in the middle between childhood toys and the real babies on the way. In the cupboard there is even a boardgame called ‘Life’.

The play’s saddest irony is that Jonjo – the most enthusiastic father-to-be – is the one who will not be allowed out of prison until the child grows up. All he gets is the imitation, a childish game-like approximation of life.

Yet although the prison environment freezes them in a state between child and adulthood, the space lacks the nurturing care required for a real child. As seems true of all streamed theatre at present, the pandemic makes occasional moments resonate with extra emotion. In this case, it is an inmate’s desperate request for a hug – that regulations insist must be refused – that acquires surprisingly relatability. The characters in Shook must live in a constant lockdown, simply as a fact of their imprisonment.

The play ends with a poignant image that exemplifies its sense of futility. Jonjo is left alone, cradling a doll they have just been learning to change nappies with. There’s something aspirational in it for him, given he will never tend to the child he has fathered. It reminded me of the end of Edward Bond’s 1965 play Saved. It concludes – after some of the most shocking violence in British theatre – with a near-silent scene. The audience is left with the quietly beautiful image of a man mending a chair, a symbol of the belief in a future and the potential for healing. In Shook, the perhaps similarly therapeutic action of changing a nappy on a doll signals the future promise that has been denied. It is a statement of intent from Jonjo, that he will not be like the stepfather, an attack on whom landed him in prison in the first place. Yet the intent must be the substitute for the real thing. A future of loving parenthood is not unthinkable for him, but is rendered impossible by a deterministic system that no one believes can change.


Written by Samuel Bailey, Directed by George Turvey and James Bobin
Reviewed 19th February 2021

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