Within just a few hours of leaving prison Jay Johnson has been mugged. Surrounded by taunting youths, his phone is snatched before he even makes it home.
Jay’s world of menacing east London streets where fights flare in the blink of an eye and gangsters roam with arrogant glares is the backdrop for The Realness, a raw and gutsy musical exposing the harsh actualities of a life surrounded by crime.
Despite his efforts to make a fresh start, Jay is pulled back into the very lifestyle that got him locked up. Here, where opportunities are scant and home comforts lacking, it is crime that really does pay, epitomised by Leroy, the bling-laden chief gangster.
Designer, Colin Falconer’s stark strip lighting illuminates a dichotomous world where laughs lie side by side with violence. Jay’s mother, a gospel-singing, god-fearing church-goer beats her son until he bleeds; feisty young mothers are embroiled in gun crime; and Jay’s new, hopeful business prospects must be funded by drug trafficking when the bank fails to give him a loan.
For some of the cast however, these experiences are not so far removed from their own lives. Comprised partly of ex-offenders and care leavers as well as professional actors, The Realness is the culmination of a three year project set up by director Maggie Norris.
Norris began the project while artistic director at Only Connect, a charity which works with ex-offenders and young people at risk of crime.
Whilst at the charity, Norris was alarmed to discover that 27 per cent of the adult prison population, and 40 per cent those under 21, were care leavers. Finding little support for young people leaving the care system, Norris sought to break this cycle and began The Big House Project in 2013.
Based at Hackney Downs Studios, The Big House is open to all young care leavers, helping them to make “the complex transition from looked-after child to independent member of the community”. Each member takes part in a twelve-week programme comprising of workshops, rehearsals and performances.
The workshops cover a range of issues such as alcohol and drug abuse, gang membership, homelessness and relationships as well as practical topics including paying bills and healthy eating.
Each play rehearsed and performed by the group reflects the participant’s own lives and professional writers work with the groups to help bring the material to life.
The Realness is The Big House’s third production and its largest yet. Previous shows, Phoenix and Baby/Lon, garnered high critical acclaim using an immersive format in which audiences followed the action in a promenade fashion.
Produced in conjunction with Big Broad Productions, The Realness breaks previous Big House traditions. Intertwined within Maureen Chadwick and David Watson’s witty, colloquial script lies a collection of blistering songs by Kath Gotts, ranging from smooth R’n’B and bouncy reggae numbers, to sharp hip-hop and gospel arrangements.
Dizzying images projected on to the bare studio walls launch the audience between a series of urban locations and there are large, choreographed routines displaying narcotic-fuelled drug smuggling, gang tensions and grief-stricken funerals.
Speaking to Eastlondonlines, Norris said: “The whole project has been worked over a number of years… The stories that you hear are a collection of people’s experiences who have come out of prison and found it difficult to come back to the same old patch and stay on the straight and narrow when there’s all sorts of temptations to pull them off track.”
She speaks warmly of the cast, praising their “professional discipline” which they have sustained over the play’s long run. “This is a much bigger project,” she says, “this is two and a half hours long with sixteen numbers and a lot of choreography… but the quality has remained high throughout”.
For Andrew Brown, who plays Mikey, Jay’s loveable best friend, The Realness has become a major part of his life. He told ELL: “I was one of the original guys that took part in the workshops when we initially started this about three or four years ago. To get the call to come back and do it again with a different set of people was an honour.”
Brown got involved with the play while attending workshops at Only Connect. He speaks admiringly of Norris who he says “changed the way we did things at OC.”
He said: “The Realness means a lot to me, especially being part of it from a grass roots level. I’d say it’s like my little brother. It’s the first play I’ve ever done that has shown me that people have confidence in me, they believe that I can go home and learn lines and remember songs and choreography… It means a hell of a lot and I’m glad to be part of it from when it started to now.”
Although the cast’s input into the final script is not a large as in previous productions, Brown says that it still includes “influences” from the original workshops: “My character is written on what the writer knows about me and that hasn’t changed in this version so I’m quite chuffed.”
He acknowledges the authenticity of the writing saying, “Kath Gott’s a great writer. There’s a line – ‘munching on panini uptown punani’ – for me to read that from an English writer I was like, woah, well done! I grew up going to Jamaica in the 80’s so to hear something like that in the script was great.”
Aaron Russell Andrews, who plays a variety of characters including the volatile, streetwise Lye, was also introduced to the project through Only Connect. He said: “I saw videos of the play when it was being workshopped and I just thought ‘I wanna be in this, I wanna be in this!’… I’m not someone who loves the process of rehearsals but this has been really good. I believe in myself a whole lot more.”
After performing extensively in The Big House’s productions, including Baby/Lon, Andrews is now an honorary member of the project, going on to work as a mentor for the youths who join the scheme. His acting career is also taking off and he is currently filming a documentary about violence against women.
For Brown, Norris has been an inspiring mentor, he says: “I feel so proud because Maggie phoned me and said she wants to employ me as a full time professional actor. I’d done acting before but Maggie has pushed me to a higher level.”
The Realness is on at Hackney Downs Studios until December 20. To book tickets visit here.