No Man’s Island – The Big House, London

Reviewer: Scott Matthewman

Writers: Jammz and James Meteyard

Composer: Jammz

Director: Maggie Norris

Every community has its focal point. For one housing estate in Hackney in the early 2000s, it is a pirate station, Blaze FM, blasting jungle and grime music across London from an illegal transmitter hooked up on a nearby tower block, while its DJs pass commentary on the events of the day.

The founder of the station is Hughbert Smith, an impassioned man whose combined love for music and social justice has formed separate inheritances for his two children: Aisha (Anais Lone) is heading off to university to become a human rights lawyer, while her brother Alpha (Aliaano El-Alli) is a musician forever stung by his best mate and former performing partner leaving the estate to become a well-known music artist.

As the years progress, Hughbert’s flatcars as a drop-in centre for the local youth. And so whenever an event befalls the community, its effects are felt at Hughbert’s place.

Created and staged by charity The Big House as part of a 12-week programme for care leavers and at-risk young people, No Man’s Island often suffers from the lack of focus that a production designed to showcase a large cast can fall into.

Matters aren’t helped in this regard by the writers’ decision to tell the story over a span of twenty years. This is a structure which does allow various topical and political events to be covered, from the July 5 bombings to the Grenfell Tower fire and mainstream media’s sudden fixation on drill music as an imagined source of violence. But as the outside world moves from event to event, writers James Meteyard and Jammz struggle to convey that the characters’ lives are progressing in the same way.

That is a shame, because when the play slows down and focuses on one point in time, No Man’s Island really begins to show its potential. Perhaps the most effective illustration of this is the group’s reaction to the July 5 bombings in 2005: as a Blaze FM presenter tries to inject some much-needed (but misjudged) jollity to the ire of his call-in guests, Hughbert discovers that he is wanted for questioning in the reopened case of Keith Blakelock, the policeman murdered in the Brodwater Farm riots in the early 1980s.

This confluence of events shows an erudite mix of humour, political commentary and history lesson for those unfamiliar with this country’s long and troubled relationship with communities such as the one depicted. The potency of this scene does not last, however. Further scenes have a tendency to concentrate only on one topic, at times making the play seem like a disparate set of ideas unsuccessfully remixed into a long evening.

This also means that some of the important messages, particularly of state suppression of dissenting voices, are not as effective as one would hope. It is possible that by touching on fewer issues from the headlines, those that Jammz and Meteyard focused on could feel all the stronger.

Tina Torbey’s set design capitalises on the awkward space of The Big House’s performance area, more effectively in the first act than in the second, as the flat becomes more of a dedicated recording and podcasting space with new walls and less clutter. However, the understandable decision of placing the Blaze FM decks in the centre of the small space creates yet more blocking issues that director Maggie Norris’s staging does not always overcome.

Jammz’ compositions, performed with live raps, provide a thrilling immersion into this world. But the overriding musical image comes in the middle of Act II, with a sequence that feels like a better act finale than either we get here. Hughbert dances with increasing abandon as the immigration services, aware now that he has no leave to remain, bang on the flat’s front door.

It’s at times like that where the potential power of No Man’s Island shines through. And while elsewhere its sprawling nature may not quite work as a play to the same effect, as the culmination of The Big House’s work with young people its success is measured by other means. For these fictional young people, Blaze FM is providing an essential service; in the real world, The Big House does much the same.

Runs until 27 May.

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