Friday, 17 November 2017

Keep on running… Phoenix Rising, The Big House, Smithfield Market

Never seen a play in a darkly-lit underground car park? You’ve never really seen theatre pal!

Tonight was a magical mystery tour starting at my favourite Smithfield ale house, The Hope and then off through the meat market, down some stairs, along a corridor and out into a shadowy void with runners warming up for a sprint. Straight away you’re into the action and almost complicit in this extraordinary passion play as the drama mills around you in disorienting bursts of light and sound throughout the strangely perfect location.

The Big House is a project aimed at breaking the cycle of destitution for care leavers with so many falling through the cracks of an under-funded system once they reach 18 and with the shocking statistic that around half of prisoners under 21 have been in care. Director Maggie Norris worked for six years on rehabilitating offenders, many of them care leavers, and set up the company to help break the cycle. The aim is to provide a creative outlet and so many of tonight’s superb cast have been in care themselves…

Andy Day’s story is real enough to them and they brought these fragile lives straight at us as we moved from one part of the huge space to another, the cast were like energised apparitions and it almost a shock when at the end they moved amongst us shaking hands and thanking us for coming.

This photo and above: Dylan Nolte
The play tackles difficult subjects and yet there is an energy and a joy in the playing: this is their truth and they are eager to share.

Callum (Aston McAuley who is threateningly brilliant) is the coolest of the runners at the start and psyches out the rest of the sprinters, easily winning with minimal preparation: he knows they know how competitive he is. Like most of those we encounter Callum is a care leaver and yet he has this great gift that could elevate him far above his rented flea-pit and the drug addled streets in that part of town you’d much rather avoid.

He’s as quick to temper as he is fleet of feet and one social worker after another feels his displeasure: he won’t be mollified and treats every attempt at kindness as a potential threat. Yet, all is not well, he keeps on having strange cramps in his legs and seeing visions of a weirdly angled figure facing off against him and laughing. The “Disease” is played quite superbly by Oz Enver who contorts his frame with near impossible angles…

Photo: Rick Findler
We don’t know what this portends as so many aspects of Callum’s life are wrong, he’s damaged and almost lost. We get flashbacks to his junky mother Julie (the excellent Rebecca Oldfield) and the abuse she meted out towards him and his sister Linda (Jade O'Sullivan). It’s no wonder the teenager finds it hard to trust helpers, only agreeing to be coached by Josiah (Charmel Koloko) when he agrees to try get him a pair of Nike running shoes.

Meanwhile he hangs around with mates who struggle with the crime and addictions of their neighbourhood, Bready (Daniel Akilimali – also superb) and Omar (Jordan Bangura). He even picks a wrong ‘un with his conflicted girlfriend Nina (Perrina Allen so cool and convincing) who dances well but sows dissent among his mates. It’s an unforgiving world and everyone is on their mettle ready for fight of flight.

Callum’s nightmares grow more vivid and there’s an incredibly effective dream-scene when the track is lit through dry ice and his family and friends appear as ghoulish figures, all topped off by the arrival of his angular bete noir… We find out soon enough the meaning of that vision and as Callum seeks out his sister and sectioned mother, it seems he has nothing left to live for… and yet… Oh, just go and see it!!!

Photo: Dylan Nolte
I loved this play in the run-around and the use of the space is superbly imaginative. It was a magical mystery and I’m amazed by the cast who were so vividly alive in their roles. This is art imitating life inspired by art and surely the most passionately genuine show in London.

The play runs (ha!) until 2nd December 2017 and I would urge you not to miss it: a quite unique experience and one that will leave you reeling.You can get tickets from the Big House site.

Where: Smithfield Car Park. Box office and audience meeting point: The Hope, 94 Cowcross St, Clerkenwell, EC1M 6BH.

IthankyouTheatre Rating: ***** Expect Big Things from the Big House!

Further details of the Big House project are available ontheir website. A very worthwhile cause and one that needs our support to help more phoenix rise.

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