As someone who has always found escape within music, Poet in da Corner was a show that had immediate appeal to me. With its central theme of finding purpose and meaning after just one listen to Dizzee Rascal’s ground-breaking album ‘Boy In Da Corner’, it also felt a perfect fit for the always progressive Royal Court Theatre. The good news is that it just about ticks all the boxes.
The person finding purpose and meaning is writer and performer Debris Stevenson. Brought up in a strict Mormon household, her exposure to the outside world comes through her schoolfriends. It’s when one friend lends her Dizzee Rascal’s album that she realises that there is hope for her, no matter how severe her dyslexia may be or how strict her mother is.
Unsurprisingly, the whole show is told through the medium of her inspiration; grime music. Heavy beats fill the wonderful walls of the Royal Court in a way probably not heard here since Kate Tempest took to the stage a few years back. Yes, Poet in da Corner is another piece of gig theatre, and should come with an advisory warning that it gets very loud.
The schoolgirl Stevenson goes on a path of discovery, of both herself and the alternative world around her; one that doesn’t have to be religion and Shakespeare. Instead, her religion becomes the bars and beats she initially hears and later composes, whilst her Shakespeare is the words of those bars. In her eyes the lyrics of Dizzee Rascal and others within the grime music scene are Shakespeare’s equal in many ways; just a modern take on writing a sonnet.
Stevenson is ably supported by Stacy Abalogun and Kirubel Belay, who mix their roles between being vocalists, dancers and supporting characters in her story. Abalogun’s portrayal of Stevenson’s mum is carefully handled, giving her an air of both sainthood and authority rolled into one. The fourth member of the crew is Jammz, playing SS Vyper, the friend who first introduces Stevenson to Dizzee Rascal. His early entrance gives the story added power as he storms on in protest, prompting thoughts of whether the white Stevenson is somehow stealing the limelight from other performers due to the colour of her skin. It’s an important concept that needs addressing and is done so gently – perhaps a little too gently?
Having recently been singing the praises of another piece of gig theatre in The Canary and the Crow, it is fantastic to see the genre get further recognition from the Royal Court. However, whereas The Canary and the Crow managed to present a performance that was crystal clear throughout in both the sound and its message, Poet in da Corner doesn’t quite match it in either category. The vocals are often lost within the heavy bassline, and by losing the vocal you occasionally lose the story as well. But comparisons aside, this is still a joyous celebration of how music and theatre can share the same space, and how both can help you escape and find meaning when you may not feel you fit perfectly within the world around you.
Written by: Debris Stevenson
Directed by: Ola Ince
Music director and lead composer: Michael ‘Mikey J’ Asante
Booking link: https://royalcourttheatre.com/whats-on/poetindacorner/#book
Booking until: 22 Februaru 2020 (London) and then touring