From the bonhomie opening, and larger than life performance of Martina Laird, you’d be forgiven for initially thinking that Shebeen is a jolly, light-hearted sitcom about 1950s Windrush immigrants settling into their new lives in Nottingham.
But this powderkeg of a play, from award-winning writer Mufaro Makubika, explodes halfway through leaving you in no doubt that this is anything but a feelgood domestic drama. It’s incendiary.
Written for the Nottingham Playhouse, and set in the city, Shebeen has now transferred to London’s Theatre Royal Stratford East and the opening night performance left its multi-cultural audience shocked and stunned by the reality jolt of its language and plot.
It is 70 years since the HMT Empire Windrush brought the first large groups of post-war West Indian immigrants to the UK from Jamaica.
The patriotic, Commonwealth citizens were wholly unprepared for the reception they received. Many were denied jobs, housing and opportunities with race riots breaking out in London and, earlier, in Nottingham.
Former championship boxer, George (The Kingston Bomber), and his ambitious wife, Pearl, are living with their two young children in Grace Smart’s evocative and well designed rundown slum in St Ann’s and are operating an illegal bar, a shebeen, in their home in a bid to make cash and provide a sanctuary for the area’s newcomers.
The police – at least the affable Sgt Mark Williams – is prepared to turn a blind eye so long as “having friends over for a bite to eat” doesn’t get out of hand.
But increasing hostility between immigrants and local white youths leads to a man being stabbed and another roughed up.
Shebeen hostess, the effervescent and hard-working Pearl, placates tempers and assuages fears with hefty glasses of good Jamaican rum, a firm hand and mutton curry. There’s no messing under her roof from anyone.
Sharply dressed regular, Earnest (the always watchable and charismatic Ronan Bell), who fancies himself as a bit of a ladies man, is entertaining.
He likes a joke, flirts with the ladies and even chats up a member of the audience, but the party spirit is threatened by an increasingly tense atmosphere.
Nottingham teacher, Mary (Chloe Harris,) is dating Jamaican Linford (Theo Solomon) – at a time when mixed race relationships were dangerous and progressive – and it doesn’t go down well with her furious mother.
Nor with one particularly bigoted policeman who visits the shebeen following a street attack on Linford and ends up arresting the victim.
Makubika’s powerful use of language has an instant affect on younger theatre-goers who, lulled into a false sense of security by the sociability of Earnest and Pearl, were unprepared with what follows.
Hazel Ellerby, playing Mary’s prejudiced and uncomprehending mother, was almost booed off the stage after a racist and vitriolic attack on her neighbours and Adam Rojko Vega’s brief turn as PC Reed nearly starts a riot.
Both characters are stereotypes but that doesn’t make them any less real.
Matthew Xia’s confident direction creates a bold and fiery drama that is as relevant today as it was in the 1950s.
Karl Collins gives a wonderfully controlled turn as the henpecked and taciturn George who simmers with rage at not being able to provide for his family.
There’s a nobility about him which is likable.
George was once a big name in Jamaica but here in England he’s not given any respect or opportunity to prove himself and you can see that it is eating him up inside.
So you can understand why he is tempted by one last purse when an opportunist promoter says he can fix him up with a big fight.
But in this matriarchal society he reluctantly reveals the offer to Pearl who puts her foot down, terrified that he will take a savage beating so long after leaving the sport.
Martina Laird gives a stellar performance as Shebeen’s queen bee, flitting around her shabby home with a duster, cooking up a banquet for her guests and playing mine host while contemplating future expansion plans.
Shebeen is a helluva party. Heartwarming, gut-wrenching and devastating.
Running at Theatre Royal Stratford East until July 7.
Review. Shebeen is heartwarming and gut-wrenching, joyful and joyless, telling the story of the Windrush generation fighting bigotry in 1950s Nottingham.