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FringeReview UK 2021

Low Down

Directed by George Turvey of Papatango in collaboration with James Bobin, designed and costumed by Jasmine Swan it’s lit by Johanna Town (Assistant Jack Wills) with music and Sound Design by Richard Hammarton. Fight Director is Tim Klotz, Assistant Director Lisa Diveney and Costume Supervisor Megan Rarity. Film direction Max Brill, Second Camera Operator Jan Vaceanu-Staicov, Production Sound Mixer Ben Metsers. Colourist Matt I Jones, Dialogue editor and Dubbing Mixer Jasper Thorn, Production Manager Ian Taylor, stage Manager Jo Alexander, Technical Assistant SM Tommaso Gobbi. Producer Chris Foxon. Till February 28th.

The play’s available to stream from Papatango on this link. Tickets cost £10.


Till lockdown every October the Papatango New Writing Prize came to Southwark Playhouse. If you’ve an appetite for exceptional new writing after theatre returns, it’ll be back in a new form. Southwark is one of several audio ports where three new audio plays will be curated later in 2021. After that, when Southwark moves into its new home, normal showcasing might resume.

This stunning film of Samuel Bailey’s debut Shook is from its initial run in October-November 2019, before an aborted transfer to Trafalgar Studios in April 2020. This production reinvents some angles, like CCTV to punctuate the scenes; ; but it’s the same set and performances refracted through first-class cinematography directed by Max Brill. The play’s available to stream from Papatango on this link. Tickets cost £10.

Shook is a tight 95-minute work of three young men being readied for fatherhood when they emerge from their stretches. Andrea Hall’s Grace is challenged on occasion by their behaviour, but more importantly, always challenges them. Each have fathered or are about to father a child. They’re sixteen and seventeen: it’s a young offender’s institute. They need to learn to share baby-rearing responsibilities fast. Carefully shaded dolls, nappies and mouth-to-mouth are just the start.

Josef Davies’ Jonjo seems aphasic when motormouth-on-speed Cain arrives. Cain relentlessly goads him to answer with quick-fire: ‘’If you’re a mong… They’ve got a whole special unit for window-lickers and that.’ Jonjo barely stutters, but when he does speak, it’s with authority as Cain discovers, once Alpha-male maths virtuoso Riyad arrives. ‘Scorpio’, Jonjo solves Cain’s sun-sign puzzle for him, adding almost apologetically that his mother’s into it.

Bailey sets up his dynamics neatly. Josh Finnan’s wonderful Cain dominates verbally and in sheer velocity. He might be dyslexic, have ADHD, is certainly a Scouser: none of this explains him. And after all they’re synonyms for being as Riyad suggests ‘just annoying little dickheads.’

Cain’s all mouth too and thinks better of rubbing up against Ivan Oylik’s superbly leonine Riyad, and as he discovers, Jonjo, to Riyad’s amusement. Riyad’s not quite so amused when Jonjo beats him in every board game, but Jonjo also explains to Cain that Cain’s father hadn’t forgotten his birthday: he unravels Cain’s frantic narratives, notices things.

Bailey keeps reactions fluid, slow bonds and grudging liking built up between the three men. Cain’s hopeless future too is eloquent. He’s been offered early release for submitting to restorative justice, Riyad wrests out of him. But why take it, Cain asks? ‘This place here… is like fucking Butlins to me… I ain’t got nowhere to love, no money.’

Cain seems least likely to make a future with anyone on the outside. And Riyad’s partner has already left him. He warns Cain not to force Jonjo into sharing his story, though to prove he’s not a nonce, Jonjo’s story, all of a piece with a man perplexed in the extreme, leaves them speechless. No restorative justice needed there, they later joke uneasily.

Bailey’s bantering grasp of details fly by, the way probation officers work, the fights and whether a suicide attempt’s real. Cain knows the difference between real and fake suicide attempts: ‘Sideways for attention, longways to get the job done.’ He shows his sideways cuts ’I was bored… needed some drama man.’

The locus of all this, Grace, insinuates herself by degrees, un-skeining the young men’s inhibitions, bringing out thoughtful Jonjo’s talents. Cain and Riyad turn out far more adept at nappy-changing than you’d think. Still Grace most of all focuses her attention on Riyad’s maths. Hall projects a guarded clinical warmth into her performance, just enough of a filament to warm genuine concern against red tape. It’s a subtle reading; less virtuosic than the men’s but sashaying between wry sanctioned admissions of her own children’s behaviour, and a slight bending to familiarity that might snap shut.

When Grace shows Riyad college prospectuses he’d soon be able to take up he ripostes: ‘But they’re all Asians. And they’re girls.’ Still he ends up taking exams. Results though get overtaken by the arrival of some people from Riyad’s past, and there’s a law of survival before you’re stamped on yourself. Can he make a sane choice?

Hall’s Grace has to anchor the trio’s roving planetary energy, protecting some against the glaring fireball of Cain, who might not be as physically imposing as he’d like, but whose words sting with the most uncomfortable truths of all.

As Cain explains pointing to his own head: ‘It’s up here that’s the fucking problem. It’s too late. It’s already fucking happened And you can’t change it.’ We’re left wondering how true that is, what each of the characters might still do about it.

Directed by George Turvey of Papatango in collaboration with James Bobin and designed and costumed by Jasmine Swan as a simple, handkerchief-sized scuffed square of off-white room, turquoise binds echoed in the pale green shirts of the prisoners: light green’s perennially used as an institutional calming colour. As Bailey suggests it’s ‘unloved’ making do with a whiteboard stage right, a door and office cupboard with games and dolls upstage, and table with scuffed turquoise chairs. It’s lit with a regular beat of neon by Johanna Town with music and sound design by Richard Hammarton. Fight Director’s Tim Klotz, Assistant Director Lisa Diveney and Costume Supervisor Megan Rarity.

No praise can be high enough for Finnan’s explosive performance lapped with tiny moments of self-questioning and utter despair. He literally dances about the stage courting and threatening disaster by turns. The way too he makes way for each of the other men in turn whilst keeping up his gadfly persona is by turns hilarious and dangerous: to him and those he jabs at.

The others are all pitch-perfect. Though recently graduated Oyik’s rapid experience produces a performance of stature: the ease, grace and occasional menace of a man who knows his powers but also the cul-de-sacs life’s gifted him with. Oyik’s Riyad is generous (particularly to Jonjo, occasionally to Grace), a natural leader, a man who forces Cain to think about options more clearly than even Grace can. Davies too projects a hurt eloquence as mute speech. His physical hunching, balling himself from trauma, stands as a memorable foil to Cain’s skirl of words about him. When Davies centres Jonjo’s voice it comes out with a devastating authority of its own. Hall’s consummate professional as we’ve seen offsets it all.

The trio’s fortunes are neatly subverted and to an extent confirmed too. Bailey’s mastery of prison dynamics and different idioms is phenomenal, particularly for a first play. It’s beautifully constructed, breathlessly pitched and ferociously honest – not least with the language.

More widely, Bailey’s interrogation of class and masculinity shows us how governments trash and bang up the young from council estates. They’re thrust behind new cladding, but still waiting to burn.

The Bruntwood’s a marvellous drama prize though doesn’t guarantee performance and publication (with 10% royalties) let alone a handsome commission for a second play. Papatango is fast becoming the other great prize, the winning play mounted very quickly, and that elusive second one given every support. And those shortlisted get showcase readings to industry professionals alongside the winner.

The Southwark – shortly to achieve its funding for a new home – is a go-to for terrific new drama and musicals, and will be again. As it is Southwark’s putting out an astounding number of online productions – their site’s the most active in London – at the same velocity as before lockdown. Shook stands out, even there.