The shebeen is a worldwide phenomenon, the name arising from Irish custom but practiced around the globe, anywhere where the need for an unlicensed bar is felt; Nottingham-based writer Mufaro Makubika had his interest piqued when he learned that a practice familiar to him from Zimbabwe was also integral to the Caribbean community in Nottingham’s St Ann’s in the 1950s. The shebeen of Makubika’s title takes place within the damp, peeling walls of Pearl and George’s cramped home, and provides a safe place for Nottingham’s windrush generation to dance together, drink rum and play dominoes.
As with Kefi Chedwick’s Any Means Necessary, Nottingham Playhouse has a knack for commissioning local plays with prescient resonance. Makubika couldn’t have predicted that a Conservative government would choose the seventieth anniversary of the arrival of the Empire Windrush to announce intentions to send the descendants of those arrivals ‘home’, but his lovingly crafted depiction of a family of colour making a home in St. Ann’s in the face of hostility from strangers, neighbours and the police couldn’t feel more timely.
Grace Smart’s ingenious angled set allows the living room, hallway and kitchen of the house (decorated with crucifixes and a picture of the young Queen Elizabeth II) to fill the Nottingham Playhouse stage (and what a joy to see new local writing on a big stage) without seeming outsize. In the first scene, Pearl (a brilliant Martina Laird) entertains Karl Haynes’s local policeman, slowly breaking down his defences as she offers him curried mutton and rum, genuinely befriending him while also teasing out what he is really after – a promise that the couple’s shebeen will stay orderly. Then, as the scene switches to the evening, drapes fall to reveal a multi-coloured backdrop and a mirror ball in the theatre’s rafters, with a cast of local extras filling out the party and allowing the atmosphere of the shebeen to burst out of its enclosed setting.
And what an atmosphere. Much of the first act involves hanging out at the party and getting to know its most vocal regulars, and large parts of the press night audience sang along to calypso and ballads, shouted out in solidarity during the domestic squabbles and, unsurprisingly, exploded in rage when the police brought out their truncheons and dropped the ‘w’ word in breaking up the party. Matthew Xia’s subtle direction concentrates on establishing warmth among the partygoers and between them and the theatre audience, ensuring that the stakes are as high as possible by the end of the first half.
Several stories overlap during the shebeen. Gayle (Danielle Walters) has just been let go for being too good at her job and earning more than the white girls; Linford (Theo Solomon) and Mary (Chloe Harris) are debating whether Chloe’s family will accept their relationship; hilarious hustler Earnest (Rolan Bell) simply needs Pearl to stand him a drink until he’s back on his feet; George (Karl Collins), Pearl’s husband, has had an offer of a big fight, reprising his glory days as a prize fighter.
The dialogue crackles, with all-too-brief dances loosely structuring the overlapping conversations. The stories are all of survival, the shebeen providing the forum in which the community gathers to be strong. It is, unsurprisingly, outside forces that tear it apart – first Linford and Mary are attacked on the street; then Adam Rojko Vega’s more aggressive police officer arrives to arrest Linford; then, the next day, Mary’s mother approaches Pearl to ask her to split Mary and Linford up. Laird sits at the heart of every narrative strand, holding together a fragile and volatile group, and her choices are the production’s hardest as she wrestles with her own dreams while being pressured to shatter those of her husband and friends.
If I have a complaint, it’s that the play feels like the first two acts of a three-act play. The second act sees the group in a beautifully paced holding pattern the morning after as they wait anxiously for news of Linford; suddenly, however, in the last ten minutes a series of shocks brings the play to an abrupt ending. The image of the enraged men leaving the house, weapons in hand, as the noise of the 1958 riots crescendos, is a powerful one but surprisingly nihilistic, cutting off the stories mid-flow, and some gesture towards how – even if – this community deals with the fallout (especially as the Nottingham riots, which took place a week before the Notting Hill riots, are relatively little known) would be welcome.
But the too-brief time we get with these characters is more than enough to establish them as people worth rooting for. Crucially, no-one in this world is perfect. The shebeen itself is rooted in a celebration of the imperfections that make us human, and the partygoers’ patience with one another despite the fights, pettiness, lies and hopelessness is indicative of the love that binds them together against greater threats.
Shebeen is on until 16 June 2018 at the Nottingham Playhouse, and then at the Theatre Royal Stratford East. Click here for more details.