Shebeen is one of a few dramas about the lives of British Caribbean migrants to have been given a timely staging in the wake of the Windrush scandal. Plays are programmed several months in advance; sometimes theatre reveals itself to be aware of growing tensions in communities before they make the news. While the clashes between generations in immigrant families have been explored in Nine Night at the National Theatre and a revival of Leave Taking at the Bush, Shebeen focuses on simmering tensions in the days before a 1950s race riot. All three plays are set within the home, but in Shebeen the central conflict is with the racism of the outside world.
We spend 24 hours with Pearl (Martina Laird) and George (Karl Collins), a loved-up Jamaican couple in St Ann’s, Nottingham, who run an unlicensed “shebeen” or pub-style gathering in their damp-ridden house. The supporting cast shine: Rolan Bell’s smooth-talking Earnest and Danielle Walters’ pained Gayle, who is sacked for working faster than her white colleagues, show the complexities and hardships of the immigrant experience. An interracial couple, Linford and Mary (Theo Solomon and Chloe Harris), struggle against hostility and come across as so tenderly in love that they are easy to root for.
But it is Laird’s Pearl who anchors the play, her excellent, steely performance saying so much about the strength that Windrush-era black matriarchs had to show – even if they didn’t always feel it. Alongside Collins’ strong turn as George, the conflicted ex-boxer who just wants the best for his family, the cast brings the best out of Mufaro Makubika’s script, which won the 2017 Alfred Fagon award.
Makubika’s writing can be funny but he doesn’t often go for easy laughs, instead letting tension slowly build around his characters. The dialogue is also stripped back; pauses and silence are given space to sit in the air. Matthew Xia’s unhurried direction pulls everything together to a tense climax. Grace Smart’s detailed design, focused on Pearl and George’s central living-room space but with a half-seen hallway and kitchen, makes the action on stage feel claustrophobic, as does the spot lighting and subtle static soundscape.
The play ends a little abruptly, but perhaps it needs to. A thick, vaudeville-style draped curtain hangs at the back of the set, intermittently lit up to suggest that the immigrants’ home life itself feels like either a performance or a dream. The empire that courted Pearl, George and their Jamaican neighbours is proven to be little more than a dream of their own making, and as the play ends and the promise of violence grows, that dream comes crashing down around them. In many ways, for immigrants like them, it still is.