Shebeen is a compelling story that voices the political climate of the 1950s; this story must be seen, heard and comprehended. The representation of the reality in which the Caribbean community lived is constructed in every aspect of this production. Shebeen follows a group of people within the Caribbean community in Nottingham in 1956. The couple Pearl and George (ex-boxer) live with their two children; they throw parties to make a better living for their family, but it serves more of than that for Pearl and people around them. Linford and Mary are a young interracial couple struggling with the narrow-minded ideology around them. The Teddy Boys are on the move and the police have been observing the Shebeen, the police conduct a false arrest at Pearl and George’s home and this arrest changes everything.

Mufaro Makubika’s Shebeen has won the Alfred Fagon award for best new play of the year in 2017. Shebeen, like many well-written plays, expresses several themes and is clued in the way in which it does this. Shebeen is a play that explores: love, loyalty, community, family, friendship, racism, interracial relationships, dreams, authority, power and political situations at the same time.

The directorial choices made in Shebeen by Matthew Xia are impactful, thought provoking, emotion triggering and purposeful. Like many of Xia’s productions, the world that we are observing is built on solid foundation. The clarity in narrative and purposeful focus on characters is valuable; with such ease our focus is shifted towards certain parts of dialogue. The moments in which Matthew Xia is highlighted give us more insight into characters and character relationships. Xia truly knows how to get the audience to invest care into his productions; a specific scene where we watch Pearl and George dance under the lights of Shebeen is one of those moments. The light touches every corner of Royal Stratford East and this made me feel like we are celebrating their love and loyalty for one another right there and then with them.

There is not a dull moment in this production; the humour within the text has sprouted out and is received in the best way. Shebeen’s audience is right there with these characters, responding throughout to what they say and do which is exactly what theatre needs, a response. One of the functions of theatre is reflection, that we all do and must do and having the audience reflect on what they see and hear instantly and respond is a beautiful experience. Xia conveys dramatic change with a perception change for his audience, this shows a clear collaboration between all the creatives involved with the production this is yet another significant reason to see this show.

The actors: Karl Collins (George), Martina Laird (Pearl), Adam Rojka Vega (Constable Reed & Robert Dunne),Chloe Harris (Mary), Danielle Walter (Gayle), Hazel Ellerby (Mrs Clark), Karl Haynes (Sergent Williams), Rolan Bell (Earnest) and Theo Soloman (Linford), all bring their characters alive and reflect a truth in which makes this production even more worthwhile to watch. Just to keep this review short I’m going to touch upon two aspects about the acting. Firstly, the unsaid feelings within Pearl’s silence, that Laird exposes through her body language and facial expressions. And secondly, the comical timing and precision that Rolan Bell portrays, both join the dramatic structure that makes this production even more captivating.

The movement direction is performed in an authentic but structured way; in moments where our focus shifts the other characters and minor characters that are an essential part of this production are still moving/dancing, which gives this show drive alongside reinforcing the setting we are in.  The choreography is fun and performed flawlessly, which is a result of movement director Racheal Nanyonjo.

The lighting design by Ciaran Cunningham enhances the whole production. At certain moments the lights are used to shift the focus of the audience and at times it to used to create the atmosphere in which the characters are living in. Cunningham’s most distinctive lighting feature is the nostalgic effect it has throughout the production. The change in lighting in the second half of the show, adds a layer of tension that is apparent towards the end of the story. I thought this change is interesting because the feeling of the production and the world in which the characters are living in has become darker and more complicated.

The music and sound design conducted throughout Shebeen is vibrant and authentic. The sound designer/composer Richard Hammarton does a splendid job on keeping the party going even though there is tension in some moments of the story.  The sounds conducted by Hammarton also keep us engaged with the narrative expressing the tension and the feelings within the scene(s).

The attention to detail in the compact but visually stunning set is incredible.  Designer Grace Smart has established the era with great vigilance. Aesthetically the set Pearl and George’s house, a true display of a house in Nottingham in that era and community, presents Pearl and George’s financial situation without losing the warmth of the characters. The contrast between the warm and colourful house in front of us and the dull grey houses of Nottingham in the background shows the dull-mindedness of the society at the time. Smart’s design gives the production authenticity; the interior of this small but full house gives us an insight into the characters, such as George’s poster indicating his boxing background.

Shebeen at the Royal Stratford east is an exceptional production that is a must see. The story is important and relevant to our time, even if there is an era difference; Xia’s direction is engaging and purposeful. The text is well written and has no flaws. The set design is authentic and detailed, the sound design and light design enhances the era, keeps the audience engaged with the narrative and shows change. Moreover, the actor’s performances are truthful. 

Shebeen is playing at Royal Stratford East theatre until 7 July

Photo: Richard Hubert Smith