By Carol Rocamora . . .

“This place doesn’t have to define you,” says the encouraging teacher to her students.

Oh, but it will, it will….

Grace’s six-week course in childcare is not being held in an ordinary classroom. It takes place in an activity center at a young offender’s institution, somewhere in England.  And her teenage students are three young delinquents – reluctant fathers not much older than the babies she’s instructing them to care for.  Those babies are waiting for these boys on the outside – if they ever get out, that is.

Such are the circumstances in Samuel Bailey’s blisteringly funny, heart-wrenching new play called Shook, produced on-line by Papatango, a new British theatre company dedicated to new work and early career playwrights.  Undaunted by the pandemic, undeterred by the delayed opening on London’s West End, this determined young company has staged a powerful production online (directed by George Turvey, in collaboration with James Bobin).  The play’s title is accurate –  this explosive new work will shake you to the core.  Do not miss it – it’s one of the most shattering new plays I’ve seen in years.

One by one, as they wait for Grace’s lessons, we get to know this trio of teenagers – each of whom has performed acts of violence that have sent them “inside.”  Cain (white, age 16) is a hyperactive motor-mouth suffering from attention deficit disorder – speed-talking non-stop while sucking on sweets from the canteen.  Raised in a foster home, he’s been expelled from every school in the country, by his own account.  As for his fellow inmate, the shy, stuttering Jonjo (white, age 17), when he finally gets a chance to speak over Cain’s rants, we learn that Jonjo’s mother is a victim of domestic violence, and  – after his abusive stepfather kicked his dog – Jonjo struck him 48 times with a kettle.  The parents of his pregnant girlfriend refuse to let Jonjo contact her.

The third inmate is Riad (Black, age 16), himself a son of an offender (he remembers visiting his father in prison).  But that doesn’t discourage him. The most articulate, motivated, and focused of the three, Riad has dreams of getting an education and starting his own business.

The scenes where Grace (Black, 35) gives these three child-fathers their lessons are both hilarious and heartbreaking.  Extracting two rubber baby dolls from the cabinet (one white, one black), she instructs the boys on how to care and feed them.  The sight of these lads intently performing CPR on the dolls and diapering them (while sucking on lollipops) is one you’ve never seen on a stage before.  It leaves an indelible impression of the tragedy of their circumstances.  Their vulnerability is so painful that it makes you look away.

As Cain, Josh Finan gives a high-voltage performance reminiscent of the jumped-up characters in Kenneth Lonergan’s This is Our Youth and Jez Butterworth’s Mojo. Cain delivers his non-stop dialogue in a spicy Liverpudlian accent, and his verbal torrents provide the much-needed comic relief of the play.  As Riad, Ivan Oyik presents a young man with great promise, shattered by the inevitable institutional circumstances.  Having passed his courses with all A’s, Riad, nonetheless, ends up in a bloody fight with other boys in the detention center during the course of the play.  As a result he’s being transferred to another facility, and who knows when he’ll get out.  As Grace, Andrea Hall does her very best to give professional, serious-minded lessons laced with compassion, but in the end she’s only a cog in an institutional wheel. “It’s hopeless,” cries the enraged Cain, who says he prefers to remain “inside” – he has no home to go to.   

Finally, Jonjo breaks down sobbing.  “Can I have a hug, miss?” he begs Grace, when they’re alone.  “I’m not allowed,” she says simply, and leaves the room.  Jonjo turns to the only source of comfort left – the rubber doll, which he hugs in desperation.  The sight is devastating.  It will break your heart.

Shook, by Samuel Bailey, directed by George Turvey in collaboration with James Bobin, produced by Papatango, now streaming through February 28 on