I wasn’t sure what to expect when I rocked up to The Big House theatre, a former frame factory nestled away on a side street in Islington. The venue works with young people who have been through the care system and develops their talent – and boy, they’ve got a lot of it.
‘Redemption’ follows two young Londoners, Maz and Tayo, as they try to break into the music industry while grappling with a headache of grief, identity, and growing up. The play is directed by Big House artistic director Maggie Norris and written by James Meteyard, who won the Mental Health Fringe Award in 2018 for his gig theatre piece ‘Electrolyte’ – he plays Maz’s caring drug dealer friend, Scratch.
I’m going to put my hands up and say I cringed at the opening scene, with a group of brash boys live-streaming an amateur-ish rap. But as soon as the leads got going, I was sucked in. Maz, played by Renaya Dennis, is our bitter and sassy narrator, who spends her nights sleeping on buses and friend’s sofas as she avoids a dangerous situation at her care home. Her explosive energy is infectious. Rapping and spitting her way through every hurdle, she meets Tayo – the shy soul singer played by Shaquille Jack – in a male-dominated recording studio. The pair soon bond in a Hackney chicken shop and open up about their family lives. Despite Maz insisting that Tayo’s ‘bare cheesy’, her bad bitch persona softens around him and her punchy grime mutates into a tear-inducing song.
The storyline is simple, but works well. It tugs at your heartstrings and makes you gasp at all the right times, heightened only by the immersive element of the show. It’s a promenade performance, with the audience guided around scenes in the building’s many rooms: a dingy, spray-painted rave, the basement of Dalston’s Rio cinema, and a stoner’s house engulfed in smoke (complete with a cardboard cut out of the Queen smoking a fat joint). With fine design from Zoë Hurwitz, the space is used brilliantly, whirling you into the thick of high-tension moments and moving onto the next at a meticulously calculated pace.
The music, obviously, plays a huge part – it’s composed by The Last Skeptik (Corin Liall Douieb), an acclaimed hip hop producer and rapper who’s worked with names like Giggs and Kojey Radical. From Maz’s sassy music video to Taio’s soul-searching solo, the tracks were clever, angry and authentic. Special shout out to the excellent audience who joined in with the ‘When I say fuck you, you say government’, with full FU force.
But the best part of the show wasn’t the music or the production, it was how close to home it seemed to feel for the cast, audience members, and the team. It referenced local landmarks in Hackney and it was littered with London slang (‘dutty’ and ‘bruv’ made frequent appearances). It was rude, raw, but also frustrating: like the real world, barriers exist, and it can be even harder to follow your dreams when the whole system seems to be against you. Most of all, ‘Redemption’ is sensitive to the pressures many young people are facing in London today – perhaps because the cast could have experienced them in some form themselves.