Theatre: Theatre Royal Stratford East
Playwright: Mufaro Makubika
Director: Matthew Xia
Review by Joy Francis
A shebeen is an intrinsic and fond part of Caribbean culture. Irish for an illicit bar or club where alcohol is sold without a licence, shebeens were a social lifeline for many Caribbean arrivals in the 1940s and 1950s; a vibrant, culturally resonant space where they could dance, let loose and temporarily evade overt racism.
Set during a sweltering summer in St Ann’s, Nottingham in 1958, the Shebeen in question is run by larger than life Pearl (an evocative Martina Laird) and her charismatic ex-boxer husband George (Karl Collins).
While George is out getting the alcohol, Pearl is busy cleaning and cooking her tasty Caribbean fare in anticipation of another of her infamous nights. Her schedule is slightly disrupted by an unwanted visitor, Sergeant Williams (Karl Haynes), who wants to speak to George about a racially-motivated attack on Michael, a black man.
Sensing trouble, the intuitive and smart Pearl charms Sergeant Williams into drinking rum while on duty and spilling the beans on his conservative, staid marriage, filled with egg and chip dinners. When George arrives, Sergeant Williams recalls his once shining career as The Kingston Bomber, punching his way around the country without his greatness fully realised.
An entrepreneur at heart, the shebeen is Pearl’s dream. A way for them to scrape together the funds to open a restaurant on The Wells Road. She craves to live in a home that isn’t riddled with damp and crumbling walls. To have a better life for her two children. For George, the shebeen is a means to an end, and a way to keep Pearl happy.
The uninvited visitors continue to arrive with the appearance of shady boxing promoter Robert Dunne (Adam Rojko Vega) who wants George to come out of retirement to fight the current champ McGraw. George is conflicted. Dunne is persistent. And despite being kicked out, he promises to return.
Pearl is proud in the belief that, as husband and wife, they have no secrets. She hated George boxing and thinks that it’s in their past. George breaks that pact by not revealing how his latent boxing ambitions have been reignited.
When the shebeen begins, the stage is transformed. People dance, eat, canoodle, laugh heartily and occupy the whole house. A potentially nasty fight is effortlessly broken up by Pearl and George. They are a gorgeous double act, a partnership, full of love and affection.
It’s a place where their young friend Linford (Theo Solomon) feels safe to hang out with his white teacher girlfriend Mary (Chloe Harris). That is until Gayle (an intense and memorable Danielle Walters) a friend of Pearl turns up and turns on them. Comic relief is provided in spades by the sharply dressed Bajan Ernest (the very watchable Rolan Bell) who has a soft spot for Gayle and eats them out of house and home.
Things take a nasty turn when Linford and Mary leave the shebeen, revealing the depth of structural and everyday racism the black community faced, from corrupt and rogue police officers to social ostracism. Pain and tension is never far from the surface, all of which almost shatters a lovingly built marriage, anchored on a dream that, in an unequal society, can never bear fruit.
The performances are stellar. The solid cast revel in Mufaro Makubika’s award-winning and carefully crafted script and Matthew Xia’s bold yet intimate direction. The shebeen shifts gears from tenderness, humour and cultural familiarity to the shock of raw racism and the palpable sense of never really belonging in a heartbeat. All visually supported by an inventive, historically accurate, multi-landscaped set by Grace Smart.
Martina Laird’s beautifully realised Pearl is full of life, confidence, love and passion, along with a need to feel in control. Karl Collins is a muscular, vulnerable and restless George while Rolan Bell embodies the joy and warmth of Caribbean humour, with a quick wit that can lift the mood of any party.
Shebeen also serves as a timely and historical reminder that the first race riots weren’t in Notting Hill but in Nottingham. It also shows the mask many people of colour are forced wear and what our Windrush pioneers endured. Pearl says: “Do you think dreams are wasted on people like us?” That is a question that hopefully, 60 years on, we can answer with more confidence.
A play worth taking time out for.
Shebeen is at Theatre Royal Stratford East until Saturday 7 July 2018.