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.