FringeReview UK 2018
Directed by Ola Ince, Jacob Hughes creates a suite of soft-tab reveals as the Downstairs stage expands till we’re faced with a grungy 1950s tenement. Choreographer Aaron Sillis ensures a solidly dancy use of the stage. Max Narula’s lighting terraces brief intimacy. Michael ‘Mikey J’ Asante composes and blasts the decibels as well as caresses them. Till October 6th.
The Court’s seen nothing quite like it – as with so many of its best shows. Equally, being this good, it reminds us of recent shows and wild parallels.
Grime poet, academic, former Mormon and perimeter-dweller between Essex and East London, Debris Stevenson in Poet in da Corner references it all in her show of growing up from the time of 9/11, when she was eleven. Her lodestone though is Dizzee Rascal’s 2003 grime hit Boy in da Corner, which is where – through her friend SS Viper – her real life began. This show’s built on that legacy but a lot more besides.
And it’s pulling in a diversity of peoples some first-timers, some of whom might get hooked on what the Court has to offer. That mightn’t be an intrinsic gauge of worth (plenty of that in a moment), but it’s from such gambits tomorrow’s theatre-makers take their spaces on stage, not just the stalls.
Playing her former selves, Stevenson’s show takes us from her strict Mormon household where Cassie Clare’s Mum, Kirubel Belay’s brother Tony – soon off on drugs – and an absent postie dad articulate a home of ritual in a world of dysfunction. They’re all high-energy performances, Clare in particular revelling in her about-face from anxious tight Mum to dancing queen partner. Jammz features as Stevenson’s inspirer, interrogator and occasional nemesis, SS Vyper.
Director Ola Ince trims down some initial participatory elements and Jacob Hughes creates a suite of soft-tab reveals as the Downstairs stage expands till we’re faced with a grungy 1950s tenement, ultra-verismo in a sweep of dissolves. There’s a revolve with an inspired application of swirling yellow school chairs and later in 2005, an estate green turf island where skanks and Jezebels get differentiated (this moving into conflicted territory). Choreographer Aaron Sillis ensures a solidly dancy use of the stage.
Max Narula’s lighting terraces brief intimacy, or – in cerise and cerulean strobe – paces Stevenson’s pansexual self-discoveries. It’s heady, functional and lives round the mixing desk where Clare and Belay double as schoolmates and grime partners. Michael ‘Mikey J’ Asante composes and blasts the decibels as well as caresses them. Oh and there’s a pair of really inappropriate neon-fringed descending crosses. Thanks but… Mormons don’t do crosses Stevenson reminds the designer. It all tumbles like that, a crop of running gags and surprises it’s good not to spoil.
Most striking for those who saw Anoushka Warden’s My Mum’s a Twat, are Poet’s parallels with that piece and more distantly Andrea Dunbar’s Rita, Sue and Bob Too; young women cusping adulthood been a welcome theme this year though Warden’s experiences with a ‘batshit-crazy’ cult-napped Mum and Patsy Ferran’s performance – of Warden’s memorably spiky navigation out of being in any way culted herself – shows strikingly similar territory. Warden’s music is gangsta-rap and of course it’s not so integral. A few years Warden’s junior, Stevenson shows young people still subject to pressures that lead to children ‘going bad’ or ‘wrong’ to liberate themselves.
And in both stories there’s a cat. In Stevenson’s case Katrina or Kat the cat once shat on the mat outside Tony’s room, when he was going to the bad. Kat’s started Mum says ‘crapping… outside of Tony’s room.’ Again. With Tony’s departure that room’s now Debra’s (Debris, named by Vyper). ‘My mum thinks my cat is homophobic and sending messages from God via its arse! I can feel all the faith dropping out of me – like shit from a baby…’
Stevenson feels maverick, not rebel like Tony, and Mum’s once given Stevenson permission to be ‘crazy’ as there’s always ‘someone bigger’. But there’s more to navigate and that’s shame. Peer-learning ‘skank or Jezebel’ is what young women have to contend with, sexual stereotyping, peer sexism and the chorus of ‘shame’. Being pansexual isn’t going to be easy with them either.
Throughout all this from his explosion on stage to his discrete numbers like ‘Respect My Struggle’ SS Vyper constantly cajoles and challenges Stevenson. ‘White girls ain’t gotta worry about Trident’, but being white ‘you ain’t never sold no drugs in the cold/You ain’t never been rushed on ya way home’ and confronting Stevenson with what she’s not faces allows her to forge an identity. What Stevenson through SS Vyper also articulates is a refusal to play simple identity politics, where everything ha to be fought for.
Ina great confrontation duet Stevenson who’s referenced all the little Tupperwear of griefs she inherited adds: ’I was a coward because I boxed up my trauma and left it behind in that house and in ding so I couldn’t turn back…’
But there’s several points of closure on a show that in its seventy-five minutes powers on forever: returning she finds ‘Mum is delicate.. a Quentin Blake illustration..’ It’s moments like these you see how fine a writer Stevenson’s become. Straddling the word between grime, and rap poetry like Kate Tempest and distantly but importantly Edith Sitwell in Façade, Stevenson’s not so easy to segment into discrete arcs of lyricism. Theatre’s a god place for her.
Whilst occasionally you’re glad of a text to reference afterwards, and at one key point towards the lyrics aren’t ideally clear, that’s the ride. With a palimpsest of shouts this is exemplary, thrilling, adrenalin-shot and shout-worthy. There’s a rousing finish though rounding it out’s never going to seem quite natural. In a sense it just stops. You feel there has to be a part two, of someone now the professor teaching children what she knows, and it ought to be soon.