Shook, shaken and stirred, Samuel Bailey’s play shatters illusions that prison inmates are solely responsible for winding up as jail bait. Showcasing the lives of three young men serving time, we witness deeply rooted trauma, and the legacy plaguing the lives of children exposed to abusive childhoods: neglect, abandonment, cruelty and demonised by society. No wonder these characters are yo–yoing in and out of prison, writes Carolyn Hart Taylor. 

Heavy as that sounds, Shook leaves audiences doubled up with laughter. Comedy is pivotal, both to the play’s appeal and its success. Laughter and jail may seem unlikely comrades, but humour is their Swiss Army Knife, a legal weapon of the tongue that Cain(Josh Finan), and Riyad(Ivan Oyik), skilfully use to stand their ground, to challenge the pecking order and to shield them from their outside tragedy. Humour is a welcome visitor when they have next to none in reality. 

Like caged tigers prowling a pit they spit caustic comments to and fro. Raw, uncensored jibes connect them – Riyad telling Cain “Don’t test me, blud” – is part warning, part clanship. In jail, street talk is their survival code. 

Heightened tension is contrasted with moments of pure fragility. Cain offering the new inmate Jonjo (Josef Davies) a sweet, and later Riyad and Cain eating lollies and haggling over Black Jacks, allows audiences behind the veneer and a glimpse at how vulnerable these lads are when robbed of their own youth. 

Josh Finan is mesmerising, a human thunderbolt literally bouncing off the dingy prison walls. Space being limited, his unrelenting energy reaches such spellbinding heights, it’s a wonder he doesn’t implode. Faced with the opportunity of release he prefers his cell, telling us prison is ‘like Butlins’. 

Uniting these guys is the fact they are all about to become fathers, so hope arrives via Grace (Andrea Hall), a tutor instructing them on how to give emergency CPR to babies – straight in at the deep end! Grace believes in them more than they do themselves. Her energy spent convincing them of their talents is offset with the brutal environment. 

An extraordinary play, skilfully presented, entertaining and well worth seeing. 

Shook is on at Southwark Playhouse, 77-85 Newington Causeway, SE1 6BD

Until 23 November 2019. Times: 8pm. Matinees 3.30pm. Admission: £22, £18. Phone: 020 7407 0234

Photos: The Other Richard