Review: Shook (recorded production)

Samuel Bailey’s award-winning play is captured on film

Josh Finan
Josh Finan
© The Other Richard

Samuel Bailey's Shook won the Papatango New Writing Prize in 2019 and its subsequent production at the Southwark Playhouse was much acclaimed. Then Covid-19 and lockdown struck, and theatres closed just as it was about to transfer to the Trafalgar Studios. This filmed version – "dedicated to all the productions that never were" – is some compensation.

It's a bleak piece, but startlingly funny too. Set in a run-down classroom at a young offenders institution it introduces us to three teenage fathers, who are taking a parenting class to better equip them for life in the world outside. Yet Cain, JonJo and Riyad are being taught to look after a baby and they all know that their real children will be much older by the time of their release. "Like we'll ever be good f**king dads," Cain says, sadly.

By placing them in such a setting, Bailey can move seamlessly from the foul-mouthed, blustering braggadocio with which they approach imprisonment to the terrible family lives that have brought them there. He sketches in their backgrounds without ever overstating them: the terrible act of violence that brought JonJo to prison is precipitated by an abusive step-father; Riyad has a loving mother but no father and is caught up in gang wars; Cain, most tragically, has no home. "This place is like Butlins to me," he says.

Themes bubble and fade within the naturalistic, blistering dialogue, as the men swop stories and develop a friendship. The overriding mood is the sense of waste, the belief that they are condemned to a life of crime and violence by their circumstances and that an education system which should lift them up fails to meet their needs. The writing is acute; little slivers of hope emerge but even as they do, they are always prefaced with the verb "may", never "will".

The filming by James Bobin keeps the sense of George Turvey's intense, rapid direction of the stage play, with added closeups. What elevates Shook is the quality of the performances, raw and profoundly touching. As the gentle, struggling JonJo, Josef Davies catches the aching sorrow of a man driven to do an evil thing and paying a high price for his behaviour. Ivan Oyik perfectly embodies both the cleverness and the fear that drive Riyad, his desire to use his brain constantly undermined by a knowledge of how low his chance of building a new life. As Cain, all restless energy, constant ragging and a desire to assert his dominance born of fear and loathing, Josh Finan lets you see the doubt behind the confident front. Andrea Hall does what she can with the underwritten part of the teacher.

On the whiteboard she uses to outline her lesson plans, we see the word empathy. That's what this play has in bucketloads. It is full of care for its subjects, taking us into a world that it's all too easy to shut out and forget. It's available until February 28, for just £10, a small price to pay for so thought-provoking and compassionate a piece.