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
Photography by Dylan Nolte
The Big House until 8th December
Other Big House productions:
Smithfield Car Park
Reviewed – 14th November 2017
“refreshing to see resilience portrayed, rather than just ‘victim to the system'”
Callum has been in foster care for a long time. He is now 18 and is getting his own place. Callum’s journey through ‘the system’ and his battle with his demons are the focus of this innovative piece of writing. But the audience’s journey starts before the lights go up, upstairs in The Hope pub, where we meet to be taken through Smithfield Market to an underground car park where this impactful, site specific performance is to take place.
An underground car park is an unlikely stage, but the bare urban setting and harsh nature of concrete set the tone of the play, and the audience know they are in for something special. Being moved around the excellently utilised car park and following the actors from scene to scene as Callum explores his past, future and present is disorientating for the audience, reflective of Callum’s experience of being in care and trying to seek support.
The set and props (Emma Bailey) were minimal yet effective, with most of the scenes enhanced with clever lighting (Zoe Spurr) and excellent character portrayal. Shadows were used particularly well with the character in Callum’s head; this grotesque form, with its jerking movements and limbs at odd angles, was made even more uncomfortable to watch as the light made the eerie shadow cast down on us.
The acting was generally very strong and there was great sustained energy from Callum (Aston McAuley) throughout. He was relatable and the audience felt connected to his story. I found Rebecca Oldfield’s portrayal of Callum’s mother particularly powerful. Depicting extreme mental illness in the form of insanity, is often a difficult subject matter and here the actor was not afraid; it was not over or under done and felt very believable.
The writing (Andrew Day) was accurate and exacting, and knowing the cast of Big House Theatre all have direct experience of the care system, made this piece even more phenomenal. Phoenix Rising is the reimagined and reworked version of Big House’s critically acclaimed debut play ‘Phoenix’ from 2013. It is staged in memory of one of the original cast members.
The comedy dotted throughout felt important and provided moments of relief in the story line. Callum’s character wasn’t all doom and gloom, he made friends and was able to see the funnier side of life at points. These humorous elements were much needed to prevent the script from remaining continually bleak, in light of the context. It was refreshing to see resilience portrayed, rather than just ‘victim to the system’; an easy trap given the subject matter.
This was a brave and honest piece of storytelling from a young cast, which took the audience out of their comfort zones. There were no pretences in this piece of work and the raw, edgy performances in this urban setting have created an experience that will stay with me for quite some time.
Reviewed by Lucy Marsh
Photography by Dylan Nolte
is at Smithfield Car Park until 2nd December