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Theatre Review: Shebeen at Nottingham Playhouse

7 June 18 words: Bea Udeh

Bea Udeh went to see Shebeen at Nottingham Playhouse...

Stories of Shebeen’s central couple George (Karl Collins) and Pearl (Martina Laird) and their community whistle in and around Nottingham Playhouse. As do words about the play's creator, Mufaro Makubika, and this being his long-awaited moment.

Inevitably, the story’s layers touch the hearts of audiences as the facts begin to float and become the subject of toasts celebrated episodically before, during and after the performance. 

Before: Stories are shouted, over the arriving audiences, of how the set design, featuring the couple's home in St Ann’s, was realised. Head of Paintshop, Claire Thompson recounts: "Well, there are the delicately hand-stenciled birds on the wallpaper, which then had to be aged." This was to reflect how the house had serious damp, in turn peeling back the layers of the life the couple were building. "Then there's the story of how we had to distress the new carpet with a sanding machine,” says Claire. “Not forgetting the beautiful backdrop curtain we painted depicting a fifties sepia street-scene in St Ann’s." 

During: The vibes emanating from their home gives a sense of the mixing of the indigenous and incoming Caribbean communities, living on top of each other in cramped housing estates. This home was a cornerstone of stability for George (a former boxer) and a stepping stone for Pearl who “can’t work for nobody” and doesn’t want a factory job. Their home becomes a regular destination for guests; a shebeen to visit, dance, buy drink and play dominoes in the corner of freedom. The type of freedom that makes one jealous and curious at the same time, but also invites danger as depicted by the relationship between Mary (Chloe Harris) and Linford (Theo Solomon).

There is no wastage in the script. I find myself tutting loudly at points that my white counterparts seemingly didn’t understand from a cultural perspective, and then laughing at other parts, inspired mainly by Earnest (Rolan Bell) where my white counterparts chimed with my experience. And vice-versa. This of course leads to a sharing and learning of audience behaviours, just like it must have been back in the fifties, with black and white people learning the nuances of living together in separate communities.

Interval: A punchy ending to the first half begets tears and yet more stories. Layers of praise fall upon Mufaro, who has managed yet again to write characters into a heart-rending reality through a Nottingham-activated story set in the 1958 riots. Led by a superbly strong cast and guest performance ensemble, there is no hint as to how the second half will unfold, despite historical knowledge of the ending. 

The power of the play is in the relentless building of tension, as each character reveals their pain, desires and frustrations, all ensconced in that hot summer of 1958. Adam Rojko Vega played both boxing promoter, Robert Dunne and also Constable Reed, providing cliff-hanging turning points to the tale. Almost enough to provide comfortable sequels, but we need not go there.

After: I am overwhelmed by the ending, yet satisfied. Sandra Russell is at the theatre to honour her mother, Dora Russell, who passed away sixty years ago; the play was a part of her mother's story, and of the riots, violence and racial chaos leading up to it. She forms part of the Colour of Love exhibition in the Playhouse's lower foyer, which celebrates the heritage of mixed-race relationships in Nottingham. 

I feel the essence of mother Pearl who, like a queen on a chess board, entwined her position as a matriarch with aspirations during a provocative period of adversity. Pearl provides the subtleties that carry this play upstream and downstream at her whim. However, never quite with enough control to stop the eventual and climatic ending.

And you can hear the hub-bub say as they peel themselves away from the auditorium, "This is about us. This is about Nottingham."

Shebeen plays at Nottingham Playhouse from Friday 1 June to Saturday 16 June 2018

Nottingham Playhouse website

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