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Shebeen review at Nottingham Playhouse – ‘fine production of an authentic but flawed play’

Martina Laird and Karl Collins in Shebeen at Nottingham Playhouse. Photo: Richard Hubert Smith Martina Laird and Karl Collins in Shebeen at Nottingham Playhouse. Photo: Richard Hubert Smith

Mufaro Makubika’s first main-stage play, Shebeen won the 2017 Alfred Fagon Award for best new work by a black British playwright, in advance of production. He’s a fine writer and a Nottingham man, but the riches are packed into its short and brilliant second half and it can sometimes feel like a work in progress.

Set in the St Ann’s area of Nottingham on the eve of the city’s 1958 race riots, it’s about a Caribbean couple, Pearl and George, who operate an illegal bar (a ‘shebeen’) from their terraced house. It’s a gathering place for their community, and the long first half portrays a laid-back party at which the audience is like an eavesdropper on scattered conversation.

Ugliness and brutality break in and there’s a theatrical tour de force as elements of the set disintegrate. A policeman hurls a racial insult that gets a collective intake of breath.

Martina Laird as Pearl and Karl Collins as George give beautifully rounded performances. They are complex characters and there’s a particularly tender moment when he massages her bare feet.

But the highlight of the play is a confrontation between Pearl and the mother of Mary (Chloe Harris), a white girl in love with a black man. The deeply rooted prejudice it exposes is more damaging than the bricks thrown in the riots.

Editor’s note: this review was updated on June 6 to remove references to behaviour of other audience members during this production.

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Fine production of a significant and authentic play that is also flawed in its construction