Pros: Fantastic singing with tunes you’ll be whistling on your way home.
Cons: Quite long, and sometimes a little too ‘issue-y’.
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.
Authors: Maureen Chadwick and David Watson.
Music and Lyrics: Kath Gotts
Director: Maggie Norris
Choreographer: Carrie-Anne Ingrouille
Musical Director: Michael Henry
Producer: Samuel Julyan
Booking Until: 20 December
Booking Link: https://billetto.co.uk/hackney-downs-studios