Review: Shook, Southwark Playhouse

Shook, Samuel Bailey’s debut play, gives an honest and powerful insight into just what is going on with young working-class British boys as they become lost in the system. It’s a triumph for the young writer and his words are utilised to their fullest effect via four engaging and talented actors.

Set in a prison classroom designed by Jasmine Swan, three young offenders Jonjo, Cain and Riyad are either new fathers or are about to become one, and are learning how to look after their babies. The teacher tasked with educating these boys is Grace, a sensitive woman who, in truth, has no hope of succeeding. 

In spite of this, the three boys form a bond and use the classroom as a moderate safe space where they fill their time initially by talking rubbish, until they eventually start hitting on hard truths. 

Jonjo (Josef Davies) is nervous, uncomfortable and suffers a stutter on the rare occasion he talks. It feels as though he belongs here the least and his crime, when revealed, can’t help but be met with a laugh – although it is horrendous. His inclusion allows us to understand that you don’t have to be inherently bad to end up in young offender’s institution. The performance from Davies is marvellous. Through his actions and shaky speech we are to understand his uncertainty and confusion.

Josh Finan as Cain is energetic, erratic, and at times annoying. However, as the story unravels, we soon discover the reasons for his struggles. On the surface, there’s a danger of these issues becoming textbook cases written from a position of no understanding. However, Bailey’s writing manages to make these characters feel genuine and lovable while Finan’s performance is powerful and prepotent.

Riyad (Ivan Oyik) has a natural talent for maths, but has grown up in an environment surrounded by drugs, gangs and violence. In his attempts to grow as a young man, he inevitably is swallowed up by the system that created him. The reality for all of these boys is, no matter what their potential, their past will arise to overcome it and suck them back down. 

Finally, Andrea Hall as Grace is as vague as the positions she holds herself. What is the point of teaching these boys roles they will never fulfill? Her inclusion serves as a reminder of the real world outside, where the boys will never develop. Deep down the boys know these lessons are futile and Grace is aware of it too. She attempts to stay diplomatic and manages to maintain a reserved attitude through a strong performance from Hall, yet the audience can’t help but feel a sense of frustration for the wasted effort. 

Overall, Bailey and his cast directed by George Turvey have managed to shine a light on a generation of boys destined to grow up without fathers. This play will not change these facts, but at the very least they will give understanding to a group of often misunderstood and understably angry young men who wish they could be good, but for a multitude of reasons, find it hard to be.

The most sombre take of the night is that the babies they will never meet will most likely end up like their fathers. Cain gives a brief foreshadowing of this fact, which potentially proves the prison system doesn’t work. These characters are vulnerable, delicate but institutionalised. What hope do they have if we offer them no hope ourselves? All of these questions posed and considered by the play are a testament to how brilliant it really is. 

Shook is playing at the Southwark Playhouse until 23 November. For more information and tickets, visit the Southwark Playhouse website.