Here are some of the reviews we've had so far for The Realness.
(One quick correction, though. The show isn't 3 hours long. It's running at about 2 hours 40 minutes including interval.)
Published at 12:01AM, November 25 2014
Jay Johnson has been out of prison ten minutes when he hits trouble. He’s determined to change his life — but opportunities are scarce on his east London estate, and crime seems to be the only path to prosperity. It’s a familiar story, but in this new musical it’s delivered with heart, soul and a blistering sense of urgency. Directed by Maggie Norris of the Big House, a theatre company working with care leavers and ex-offenders, it’s performed with fierce commitment by a largely non-professional cast. The results are ragged, but thrillingly raw.
Colin Falconer’s striplit designs and Mic Pool’s two vast walls of video imagery brilliantly transform this concrete industrial space into a kaleidoscopic array of urban locations, from tower blocks to nightclubs and playgrounds. Youths on bikes weave among the action, looking for a fight to pick or a mobile phone to snatch; blinged-up gangsters glare and preen; babymothers propelling pushchairs ooze attitude. Maureen Chadwick and David Watson’s book is fast-talking, insolently witty and slang-studded, while Kath Gotts’s songs, ranging from hip-hop to R&B, reggae and gospel, have real punch.
The show is over long and the early scenes have a formulaic, blandly educative flavour. But as the plot darkens, so its grip intensifies as it unflinchingly depicts sexual exploitation, gun crime and drug dealing. A narcotics-fuelled sequence featuring Jay in an MTV rap video-style fantasy with a bevy of sexy, cocaine-smuggling airline stewardesses is undercut by scenes of casual abuse and violent tragedy.
Ashley Gayle is a warm, engaging Jay, with Jacqui Dubois affecting as his God-fearing, careworn mum, and eye-catching comic relief from KM Drew Boateng’s officious traffic warden. The undoubted star, though, is Veronique Andre, incendiary as Shanice, Jay’s tough-minded ex and the mother of his baby. And if it hits some potholes, the production blazes up its grimy streets powered by pure passion.
Published 21st November
A fizzy and funny evening full of highs and lows that you’ll be wanting to hash out at the pub after.
When you think of a musical, what are the first images that come into your head? Glitter and jazz hands perhaps? Spontaneous and unheralded bursting into song? Andrew Lloyd Webber? Well fortunately (in my humble opinion at least) such things are almost entirely absent from The Big House Theatre Co and Big Broad’s co-production of The Realness, a new musical with music and lyrics from Kath Gotts and directed by Maggie Norris.
Following the story of Jay Johnson on his release from prison, this engaging production does not shy away from the difficulties faced upon re-entry to the ‘real’ world, and the ease with which one can slip back into a life of crime. This is definitely what one would call an ‘issues’ piece – drugs, crime, murder, money laundering, trafficking and gang life are all on full display. There were moments when the story felt a little overburdened and, running at 3 hours long with an interval, some trimming down might be advised. However, this was an absolutely storming performance from the cast, some of whom are ex-offenders and care-leavers themselves, aided by a slick script and mostly very catchy, powerful songs.
There were many highlights during the night for me, but the first commendation must go to the cast. Maggie Norris and musical director Michael Henry must have worked hard with the cast to teach them the most important rule on being on stage – enunciate! Every word sung was clear and there was no straining to hear what was being said. Occasionally the backing singing was a little thin and anyone unfamiliar with patois might struggle,but the excellent acting from this cast means that you always know what is going on.
Ashley Gayle as Jay gives a very moving performance throughout, and as an audience member I felt myself become totally enthralled with his story, anxious to know what decisions he would make. Jay is the classic tragic hero, complete with tragic flaw, but his journey twists and twines and the ending is far more ‘real’ than most classic tragedies allow – it is messy but there is hope. Andrew Brown was excellent as Jay’s best friend Mikey, the larger than life voice of reason striving to make a better life for himself. And Veronique Andre, playing Jay’s partner Shanice, has a voice to knock your socks off.
This piece, like its name, is looking for what is ‘real’ and genuine in life. Is it money and riches, women and drugs, as touted by the infamous Leroy, whose influence over Jay leads to his downfall? Or is the realness to be found in love and community, family and friendship, care and faith? These are the qualities shown by Jay’s mum (the hilarious Jacqui Dubois) and her partner Pastor Hovis, played by the treacley voiced Mensah Bediako. It is Jay’s confusion in his quest to find realness and meaning that keeps us hooked.
If you’ve never been to a musical before, or think you hate them, then this might be a good place to start. Despite its length, The Realness rarely drags, and the singing feels very natural, complimenting the story and the action. Special mention to Carrie-Anne Ingrouille for providing such subtle and organic choreography.
This piece will send you away smiling, not least because of the reprise of audience favourite Ticket Machine, a tribute to ticket inspectors everywhere, brilliantly delivered by KM Drew Boateng. I guarantee that you’ll talk about this musical all the way home, and probably wake up the next day still thinking about it. It is edgy, poignant, comical, complex, and full of hope. In short, it’s real.
Published 29th November 2014
The Realness is a musical tale of redemption set in the East End. Jay, a bolshie young outlaw, is due for release after 17 months inside. As soon as he leaves jail, he’s mugged. Just like that. Bang. Out the door and his smartphone gets nicked by highwaymen on bikes. He goes in search of ‘wifey’, Shanice, now sporting a baby. Not his, apparently. She rejects him. He then lands a plum job as a street cleaner so she takes him back, for obscure reasons, and informs him that the baby is his.
These opening details are rather muddled and confused. But after 20 minutes the show sparkles into life. An exquisitely inventive ballad, ‘Turn Around’, is delivered with angelic sweetness and power by Veronique Andre (Shanice). Then we get some comedy. Jay accepts a lift from his slick chum, Mikey, whose new satnav criticises bad driving in a stroppy Bajan (Barbadian) accent. ‘Ya tek da wrang turnin, raas claat!’ They park the car on a double yellow. Enter a Nigerian traffic warden whose orotund pomposity is hilarious. He dismisses Jay and Mikey’s protests in ornate legalistic language. ‘Ah am de autority figure in diss exchenj!’ He then rhapsodises about the high responsibilities of his office and says, ‘You hev met your match. And det match has lit a fire!’
Had Tom Stoppard written that line he’d have given himself the rest of the day off. The traffic warden isn’t just a dazzling one-off sketch. He reappears later and his punctilious obstinacy leads to the crisis of the play, the death of a baby in crossfire, which a local crime lord is desperate to cover up.
The writing has an amazing freedom and candour. It shrinks from nothing. Jay’s mother is a born again matriarch who preaches Christianity but also beats her children till they bleed. You wouldn’t get a character like that at the Royal Court. Nor would you get the scene where ambitious Mikey informs Jay that his rolling, arm-swinging gait is a badge of failure, not virile rebellion. The second act takes us into the world of Leroy, an urban warlord, who uses bribery and threats to turn the reformed Jay back into a petty hoodlum.
Everything here is dramatic, fresh and brutally gripping. The songs are exceptionally good, a mixture of gospel tunes and soul ballads. And the composer has shrewdly varied them by inserting snatches of dialogue between the choruses. This counterintuitive device creates a feeling of naturalness, and gets rid of the stop-start, chat-song rhythm that gives other musicals an uneasy sense of artifice. The acting, while not uniformly excellent, boasts a great showing from Dymond Allen, who bristles with menace and vanity as Leroy. Jacqui Dubois is wonderfully funny and self-righteous as Jay’s violent mother. And KM Drew Boateng (as Obi the traffic warden) gives the funniest performance I’ve seen all year.
One warning. The venue is tucked away in a forgotten corner of the Dalston-Stokie borders. Leave extra time for bewildered perambulations.
CATEGORIES: The Realness