Writers: Maureen Chadwick and David Watson
Music and Lyrics: Kath Gotts
Director: Maggie Norris
Coming out of a theatre singing “he’s a ticket machine” is just one of the joys of The Realness playing in a small room in The Big House. The story of recidivist Jay trying to stay on the straight and narrow may be a tad predictable but the energy of the cast and director Maggie Norris’s attention to detail mean that The Realness has a lot more heart than many West End musicals.
Jay has come out of prison early for good behaviour and he is full of intent to remain on the right side of the law in his first days of freedom. The prison’s anger management classes appear to have worked and he accepts the job of road-sweeper that the probation services have prescribed. But when he discovers that he is now a father, he realises that he needs more money if he is to provide security for his son.
What Jay really wants to be is a chef, putting good use to the qualifications he earned while he was inside. He would love to go into partnership with his old friend Michael and open a West Indian panini restaurant that they have decided to call Deli Caff. If only they had the financial collateral. Local gangster Leroy offers Jay a gig that he can hardly refuse.
Set in London, The Realness calls itself ‘an urban musical’, and the first song, a rap, lives up to that description. However, the music by Kath Gotts ( and others) is very diverse, ranging from Grime to Musical Theatre with some Gospel and Calypso thrown in for good measure. Each number is catchy and yet distinct.
The large cast sings them well. Especially impressive is Anais Lone who plays Shanice, Jay’s girlfriend. Her voice is clear as a bell and soars in the tiny auditorium which holds only 46 people. Her acting skills are just as good and she’s truly believable as a woman falling back in love.
Matching Lone’s powerful vocals is Amanda Posener who, as Jay’s mother, is given some very emotional songs. But Posener never over-sings them, a refreshing change from so many other new musicals of recent years. While these two female performers anchor the drama, Charmel Koloko as the traffic warden brings the humour and his song Ticket Machine is, surprisingly, the hit of the evening. As ‘Little Miss Dizzy’, Jahia Sanches also delivers the laughs.
With such strong support, it would be easy for lead performer Jake Walden to be overshadowed but his good-natured Jay is someone you root for and the bluesy spiritual Shortcut to Heaven is a perfect fit for Walden’s voice. It is odd, however, that he’s stuck at the back of the stage for the last number and the curtain call that follows. Move him up to the front so he can receive the applause he so duly deserves.
Also meriting their own praise are the costumes from one woman’s furry boots to Leroy’s sparkly watch, from one roadman’s ski mask to another’s stab vest. Costume designer Bertie-Taylor Smith has managed to give the musical a precise sense of time and place despite the limitations of space.
And the performers fill this space when they dance to some inventive choreography from Fi Silverthorn. In one song, Turn Around, four ‘babymothers’ manoeuvre pushchairs around the stage with one performer batting her eyelashes to the beat. It’s hilarious and Silverthorn never runs out of ideas, giving each number its own unique moves.
The commitment of the whole cast is extraordinary and never once do they break character, even as they exit one of three doors in the performance space. The actors know that in such an intimate venue they can’t afford to shatter the illusion even for a second. Norris has directed her cast with the utmost skill.
There is very little wrong with this production of a musical first seen in 2014. The pace could be quicker in places and the community radio broadcasts add little to the story. The overall message of the piece is a little moralistic suggesting that prison succeeds in its mission to rehabilitate its inmates. But these are minor quibbles in a show that sizzles with verve. The Realness is real indeed.
Runs until 9 December 2023