Buzzing with Dizzee Rascal tunes and daffy energy, Debris Stevenson’s ‘Poet in da Corner’ is boldly different from the sort of show that usually graces the Royal Court’s main stage. Grime saved her, she tells us. And, with a crew of three performers who play her family and teenage mates, she shows us how.
What follows is kind of a theatre version of Dizzee Rascal’s era-defining ‘Boy in da Corner’ album, but in a way that’s only fractionally as cringey as that sounds. On-stage mixing decks (wo)manned by Cassie Clare, simmering energy, and constant self-aware humour give ‘Poet in da Corner’ just enough edge to work in a completely ungrimy west London theatre.
Stevenson maps her own life onto Dizzee Rascal’s, reworking his songs to narrate her life as an east London teenager. Grafting a white girl’s story onto a black boy’s isn’t straightforward, though, as she admits. Dizzee Rascal’s songs rail against police brutality, mates who solve their problems with violence, teenage pregnancy, and feeling his childhood is lost too soon. Stevenson’s struggles are dyslexia, school bullying, and a repressive Mormon family at home. Their stories rub against each other most compellingly in her recasting of ‘Jezebel’. The original is a bleak morality fable about a girl who gets scorned and punished for her sexuality. But in Stevenson’s hands, it shifts to document the shame her religious upbringing has given her around sex, and a kiss from a real-life ‘Jezebel’ that becomes her first tentative taste of freedom.
The yawning gap between these two growing-up narratives is also confronted in Stevenson’s interactions with SS Vyper (Jammz), the older boy who introduces her to grime, gives her his battered copy of ‘Boy in da Corner’ – and gets left behind when she escapes to Nottingham. Some of the show’s most biting moments from Jammz’s icy retorts to her. ‘Wouldn’t be the first time I’ve been a white girl’s inspiring anecdote,’ he says when she admits the problems with her new life ‘saving’ kids as a poetry teacher.
Putting grime in a theatre space is always going to feel weird, and ‘Poet in da Corner’ is endlessly aware of what it means to put a white girl in the middle of this story and this theatre. Does it do enough? I guess I’m not the right person to answer that question. But Stevenson’s performance feels undeniable, soaked in the sweat of a ’00s east London that’s not quite Dizzee Rascal’s, but authentically hers.