The Big House
Reviewed – 16th November 2018
“the show asks important questions in a refreshingly direct fashion”
Islington-based theatre company Big House, which works with young care leavers and those at high risk of social exclusion, launches its new premises with this ambitious promenade piece. 16-year old Bumper (an astonishing Shonagh Woodburn-Hall) is deeply involved in the perilous world of county-lines drug dealing. With her mother dead and her brother imprisoned, gang life provides a rare sense of family and identity. However, an attempt to bolster her credentials by purchasing a gun from a local crime lord, One Ton, leads to devastating consequences.
Employing an investigative journalist character as a kind of audience surrogate, the show asks important questions in a refreshingly direct fashion. The piece probes the inadequacy of social mechanisms designed to lift people out of criminality. Gangs and violence, it suggests, are the inevitable consequences of a society which wilfully ignores and invisibilises its dispossessed and lacks any insight or compassion into poverty.
Among a raft of impressive performances, Gerrome Miller as gang member Little Psych stands out, by turns brash and achingly vulnerable. Zia Bergin-Holly’s punchdrunk-esque set is extraordinary, with different parts of the Englefield Road building fitted out to create, variously, a prison visiting room, a seaside caravan park, a gang hideout. Maggie Norris’ thoughtful direction navigates this complex space with great skill. The show is also extremely canny its use of projection: in one particularly affecting moment, in which Bumper speaks passionately about the nature of inequality, a live camera feed of the audience is projected, as if to underscore our own complicity.
At times, one feels that the audience are being marshalled around a little too frequently, somewhat interrupting the momentum of the show. The longest scenes, which give tension the chance to accumulate and the characterisation a chance to settle in, are generally the best. Several promising narrative threads get a little lost or sidelined as the play proceeded and, one could argue, there are one or two rather superfluous scenes.
These however, are minor quibbles. This is a company doing timely and vital community theatre. Strongly recommended.
Reviewed by Joe Spence
The Big House until 8th December
Other Big House productions: