A classroom in a young offenders institution. Three inmates – Riyad, Cain and Jonjo – are learning parenting skills for when they are released, as all of them are fathers. Set in a tiny space with the whiteboard noting the lesson number, the boys are taught techniques from feeding and nappy changing to how to resuscitate an infant.
Samuel Bailey's debut play, which won the 2019 Papatango New Writing Prize, is both laugh-out-loud funny and brutally honest, catching you off-guard with touching moments when you least expect it. Bailey's writing perfectly captures the beliefs of three working-class boys who society has failed in some way, their attitudes not only towards themselves and their fellow inmates, but to whether a life on the outside is something they even want, or feel they could cope with. As Cain (Josh Finan) says, "This place here… is like a holiday compared to where I'm from. You think I wanna go back there?"
Teaching them all they need to know about becoming parents is Grace (Andrea Hall), a character who walks a fine line between sharing too much and not enough. It's not clear if we're supposed to know lots about her life, and when we do it's welcome. However, because it's so little it doesn't
justify some of her actions, such as her anger towards Jonjo when he asks a few questions.
What's clever about the play is that we never really know what the boys have done to be in prison. There are references to crimes committed, but these are tiny details in comparison to what we learn about them as their day-to-day selves. We don't judge them based on their past but the way we see them in these lessons – human rather than as a statistic.
Cain may be a ball of energy, cracking jokes and asserting dominance, but this energy begins to crack a little to show panic. Ivan Oyik as Riyad enters as a strong leader, yet the first thing he does is ask what the others' star signs are. The interactions between these two characters are a huge source of comedy, full of back-and-forth banter and sometimes struggling to understand the other's accent (they are from Liverpool and south London respectively). Josef Davies gives an understated performance as Jonjo, the quiet one of the group whose story doesn't feel fully told.
Despite being parents, it's clear the three boys are children themselves, as seen by the swapping of bags of sweets, the many lollipops consumed, and playing board games whilst waiting for Grace. Watching them like this – at their most vulnerable – enables us to root and feel for them when their hopes don't always come true: will the cycle ever be broken?
Shook is a cracking debut production from Bailey, with a superb cast. Funny, down-to-earth, and with a lot to say, it's one of the best short plays on right now.