Writer: Debris Stevenson feat. Jammz
Director: Ola Ince
Reviewer: Alex Ramon
The talented director Ola Ince has made a name for herself in London theatre with revivals of mainly American plays, including Amiri Baraka’s Dutchman, Anna Deavere Smith’s Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992 and Angelina Weld Grimké’s Rachel, which she directed in a superb production at the Finborough in 2014 Fascinated by the ways in which “power and race are interrelated,” according to Ince, she’s been drawn to work by African-American playwrights because of the intense, “bold and strong” qualities of the writing, which, she says, she hasn’t always found replicated in British drama exploring similar themes.
Ince’s new production finds her turning, hearteningly, to British work, though. Poet in da Corner is an autobiographically-inspired piece by Debris Stevenson that combines verse, movement and music as it filters Stevenson’s experience as a white girl from a Mormon family growing up in Ilford through the prism of an album that changed her life: Dizzee Rascal’s grime classic Boy in Da Corner (2003). The show that’s emerged is definitely something of an oddity, and one that still feels a lot like work in progress. But at its best it has a freshness and excitement that are hard to resist.
With grime music pulsing through the auditorium of the Royal Court’s Jerwood Theatre Downstairs as the audience takes their seats, Stevenson bounds on to the stage accompanied by Cassie Clare and Kirubel Belay (who multitask effectively in several roles throughout the evening) to announce that “grime deserves to be recognised as canon, as foundation, as part of the artistic fabric of this country.” However, Stevenson’s praise for what grime taught her about “rhyme scheme and flow patterns” comes to seem a bit ironic since the structure of Poet in da Corner is all over the place, never finding a confident storytelling mode. Some moments are plain confusing, with crucial details merely sketched in and issues and arcs stated rather than dramatised. (The play-text reveals a significant number of cuts that have messed, in part, with the material’s texture and cohesiveness.)
Ince and her team work hard to keep the proceedings fluid and lively, incorporating meta touches, and engaging visuals such as a council estate’s sudden appearance and two glowing crosses descending to herald the appearance of Stevenson’s mother, a Mormon “Mommy Dearest” (played with gleaming-eyed verve by Clare) who gets the blame for most of the family’s woes. (It’s one of the oddities in the piece that Stevenson’s father is not presented on stage and is barely referred to.)
Such discrepancies leave the music itself to carry the day, and here, at least, the show succeeds. Stevenson is a compelling performer and on Press Night battled a malfunctioning mic with grace and good humour. A scene at a rave, in which she experiences the liberation of dancing with others for the first time, is genuinely exhilarating. The music is also especially effective when used directly for dramatic purposes, as in the great confrontation scene (“Respect My Struggle”) between Stevenson and Jammz, playing SS Vyper, the schoolfriend who originally got her into grime music but who now views her critically and accuses her of cultural appropriation.
Jammz’s wry wit, charisma and the strength of his delivery give the piece a charge of electricity ever time he appears, even if, in a piece presented as part of 14-18 Now’s Represent(a series inspired by the centenery of Votes for Women), it seems decidedly strange that a male performer gets the last word. (Nor does the piece attempt to address the accusations of sexism levelled at some of Dizzee’s output.)
Overall, Poet in Da Corner is a patchy piece that feels like it needs another draft or two to fully realise its evident potential. Still, the creativity and excitement of the music should turn even the most resistant of viewers into ardent grime fans by the end.
Runs until 6 October 2018 | Image: Vicky Grout