Review: Shebeen. Nottingham Playhouse.

Shebeen by Mufaro Makubika is a blazingly original work of socially relevant theatrical art that resonates deeply with its audience.

The Nottingham based play is set in St Ann’s in August 1958 on the unpredictable eve of the violent Nottingham race riots. It examines the lives of a newly migrant Afro-Caribbean community mostly from Jamaica and the Commonwealth. All of these people have been shipped over to aid recovery in post war Britain but sadly to remain ostracised from the wider society by the colour bar. The name Windrush will forever be associated with these brave pioneers. Shebeen was voted best new play 2017 winning Mufaro Makubika the Alfred Fagan Award. This exciting Nottingham Playhouse production is the play’s world premiere.

A Shebeen is an illicit party involving alcohol, music, dancing and food held in a private home where participants could be themselves and discuss their lives in their own dialect without prejudice. Because alcohol was purchased in the home from the host the Shebeen party was considered illegal. A Shebeen would also have been ignorantly associated with potential uprising of the oppressed black communities or at the very least deep civil unrest. A case of authorities fearing the unknown and making false assumptions.

Through Makubika’s superb writing and the fine detailed, sympathetic direction of Matthew Xai we are privy to the private lives of Jamaicans George (Karl Collins) and Pearl (Martina Laird) and their friends and neighbours. They exist in a seriously unhealthy, damp, mildew ridden, grossly run down property and endure a xenophobic world of 1950s racial intolerance and outright bigotry.

In the play other inter-racial relationships bring their own kind of difficulties for a young couple but also a degree of joy and love. And it is love that shines warmly through in this most excellent production. George and Pearl are an immediately likeable pairing especially as we first encounter Pearl teasing the local police Sergeant Williams (Karl Haynes in superb period form) into knocking back a couple of glasses of rum whilst on duty. George, a former boxing champion just wants to settle down and support his wife and family. But fighting is in his history.

All of the play’s principle characters are very authentic to their time and accents. They are so well researched and actualised that one becomes instantly involved in their existence and we care about their well-being as if we know them as our real life neighbours. This is a strong piece of theatre that can properly persuade us of that degree of empathy. Particularly affecting is the super plausible inter-racial relationship between Mary (Chloe Harris) and Jamaican boy Linford (Theo Solomon). When Linford is taken into custody one genuinely feels for them both in their distress and uncertainty.

Adam Rojko Vega is magnificently dodgy as the boxing promoter on the hunt to re-engage George in the world of boxing and shocking as the blatantly bigoted Constable Reed. Rolan Bell amuses as the lovable charmer Earnest – he of the sharp attire, sharper dance moves and colourful socks. His tensed up actions at the end of the play offer up a completely different side of Bell’s character.

Playwright Makubika is especially good at writing strong parts for women – the evidence of which we discover – in the complex performances of Martina Laird as Pearl and the late arriving ‘romantic devastation in a dress’ – the barely disguised, hidden agenda full –  Mrs Clark – (played by the excellent Hazel Ellerby).

The young daughters of Pearl and George are only referred to in the play but there is a reminder on stage of their hidden presence; namely a white doll present and cuddled in a coloured household. There are no black dolls present and if we consider that self love is connected with seeing oneself as a child reflected in our dolls that represent the colour of ones skin, and ethnic look, then this absence in the play could be read as loss of cultural identity. Conversely we could view the white doll in the house (alongside the picture of Queen Elizabeth ll on the wall) as a desire to fit into the local community and integrate socially. Just a thought or two.

The local community actors (all of which are children of the Commonwealth in some way) give the piece not only an added populace but are super disciplined supernumeraries. They present themselves as a very professional and vitally important part of Shebeen’s historically critical story. They party and the young men stand sentinel on the dangerous streets of St Ann’s with equal commitment. Their stillness on the streets is impressive and impactful.

Shebeen is enormously graced by the triumphant triple creatives Grace Smart (for an amazing set and costume design), Cairan Cunningham’s startling lighting design and Richard Hammarton’s excellent sound design and compositions.

As a play that truly engages its audience 120% then Shebeen is on a par with the brilliant Adam Penford/Nottingham Playhouse 2018 season opening with Wonderland. As Mufaro Makubika says in the programme “It was written in Nottingham for Nottingham.” True enough, we Nottingham folk love to be represented, however, this universal story has a much wider audience out there just waiting to be rewarded theatrically. It may be a serious subject but Makubika has the sense to inject a serious amount of humour in this totally engaging and very very human play.

So, get yersen dahn t’ Playhahse and party like it’s 1958. No smoking weed in the auditorium though bro.

Shebeen runs at Nottingham Playhouse until Saturday 16th June then transfers to Theatre Royal Stratford East Wednesday 20th June – Saturday 7th July 2018.

Reviewer: Phil Lowe.

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