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In our latest interview, writer Eleanor Dewar speaks to playwright Samuel Bailey about his debut play Shook, now streaming as a film. They discuss depictions of fatherhood in theatre, how to write about masculinity, and the potential for theatre to shift perspectives.
Talking to Samuel Bailey is a bit like chatting to a lad your older brother used to hang around with at school. We were both raised in the West Midlands, “just outside Birmingham” being the geographical location of anyone who was raised there. But as proud as he of his roots as he is, Bailey has grown from the small collection of towns in the Midlands to the glittering lights of London’s West End. His debut play Shook was received at the Southwark Playhouse with rave reviews and was set to make its West End debut at Trafalgar Theatre Studios. But like so many plans in 2020/2021, the Covid-19 pandemic made things slightly more complicated.
“It feels like a million years ago now.” Bailey tells me as I asked him how it felt when the theatres closed, and all future plays were cancelled. “We were pretty gutted but also felt very lucky that we managed to sneak into the Southwark for four weeks.” Bailey offers a fairly stoic approach to the impact of the pandemic on the arts, “It is sad, but it doesn’t feel personal: it’s not because no one wants to see [Shook] — the situation is happening to everyone. That makes everything easier; it is a sense of a collective.” Shook is instead finding audiences in an increasingly common way, via film. “It’s filmed in an interesting way — there is no audience,” Bailey told me. “At first I was sceptical that it might feel a little dead, but I think they’ve really made the best of that — [there are] great angles and it looks like a 1970s play but for today.”
The play itself is as unique as the time it is debuting in. Shook is set in a young offender’s institution, where three young men must grapple with their impending fatherhood, their own pasts, and uncertain futures. I asked Bailey how he developed such a complex plot and characters. “The lads are based on real people that I grew up with on a council estate with — lads who spent time in these institutions who came out and told me about it and their experiences.” But Bailey is slow to describe the play as based on true events. “It’s bits and bobs that I’ve heard and with the character things, I wouldn’t say any one character is exactly someone I knew. [The character] Cain is a mix of two people, his energy is one, and his upbringing is another.” For Bailey, rather than the conventional method of intense research and listening to people recollect their lives, he “magpie[d] bits from lots of people’s lives.”
Possibly the most unique element of Shook is the focus on fatherhood. Apart from a few Arthur Miller plays (old man realises he has messed his kids up being a prevailing theme), plays about dads (particularly young ones) are few and far between if you weigh them against the iconic figureheads of motherhood in theatreland. “Shook interrogates masculinity,” Bailey explains, “and it takes place in a hyper-masculine place — prisons are hyper-masculine places and the play interrogates that concept using the father-child relationship.” The play also offers the unique angle of focusing on an often looked down upon and marginalised group: teenage fathers. “They’re children themselves and are also growing up in an environment [where] to show a vulnerability such as caring for a small child is a weakness.” Watching these young men in the play slowly develop to “play and enjoy and look forward to spending time with their kids” creates a new perception for a group of young men so often perceived as “violent and aggressive. They can be that, but they can be something else,” such as loving fathers and young people who are willing to move past their mistakes and succeed.
For many of us, the characters of the young men and their backgrounds are not particularly exceptional; we went to school with them, or they represent friends and family. However, for many regular London theatregoers, the world of Shook may seem like one from a different planet and the only communication is from sensationalist and sometimes totally fabricated tabloid headlines. “One of the loveliest experiences of the play,” Bailey tells me, “is that we had this really good review on BBC Radio 4. Previously to that it was a London-centric audience of theatre people but then we got a good write up and out audience changed over time. Many more people over 50 came, [usually] white, who wouldn’t have heard about it or come to see it if they hadn’t heard about it on the radio.”
Bailey hopes that this may bring about some shift in opinion. “It was nice to have mates who never had seen the theatre, see themselves and go ‘I never knew theatre to be like that.’ But this new audience see a world which they do not experience and don’t understand.” With that Bailey feels that maybe some fundamental changes can be made. “Once they are invested in it, they start interrogate the system [the characters] are in. The audience may start to think that they should not be where they are because they are vulnerable. Before that, they may have thought they deserved punishment. Hopefully, they’ll want the system to change because they like the characters and the play.”
Bailey is a playwright obviously passionate about the power of the theatre in enacting change. He tells me that “telling stories about underrepresented people is important and maybe the conversations about who gets to tell those stories.” I ask Bailey what his plans are post-pandemic. “I’m writing a play which was meant to go on tour this year, but we can assume it’s later down the timeline now.” Whenever this all goes back to ‘normal’ and seeing a play on tour no longer seems a like a distant pipe dream, we should be very excited to see what Samuel Bailey has to say next.
Shook is available to watch from now until the 28th February. Watch it at the Papatango website.