Founded in 2013, The Big House supports vulnerable young care-leavers through the experience of creating theatre. After leaving the care system, these young people are disproportionately at risk of ending up homeless or in prison, and are more susceptible to mental health problems and suicide. Alongside mentoring schemes, The Big House involves its subjects in the process of workshopping, rehearsing and performing a full-length show, acquiring a valuable skillset as well as building confidence in their potential.
Bullet Tongue Reloaded is an update of the 2016 original Bullet Tongue, and concerns gang culture and the recent “county lines” phenomenon in which younger members are used to ferry drugs out of the capital to fresh markets. It’s a promenade performance, with the audience led from room to room in the rambling venue, which serves to embody various London locations plus a caravan park in Eastbourne which might represent an escape route to new beginnings. The scenes are generally quite short and you get a bit of a bonus work-out going up and down the stairs every few minutes.
Protagonist Bumper (Shonagh Marie) is a teenager with an absent dad, a dead mum, and a brother in prison (Jesse Lihau as Hawk). Bumper has anger to spare, and no obvious means to break out of the vicious cycle of drug dealing and crime that form the boundaries of her world. In an effort to “switch it up” to the big time, Bumper makes contact with ganglord One Ton (Andrew Brown), which leads to an escalation of danger as a gun comes into play and Bumper’s gang with its thin veneer of desperate camaraderie find themselves out of their depth.
Into this depressing and frightening mix is added video journalist Yasmin (Auzelina Pinto), who hopes to make an impact by scooping an insider’s interview with Bumper and the gang, but who ends up falling victim to the fickleness of her producer.
The script, by Andrew Day and Sonya Hale, feels absolutely authentic in terms of how these people talk and behave, but also slips in some skillfully naturalistic metaphors that help to provide insight for the audience. The comparison of non-gang members to Muggles who have no idea of the existence of a very different community under their noses was particularly effective.
Director Maggie Norris marshals the large cast with great flair, there’s a nicely downbeat ambient sound design (Ed Clarke) and some really slick video work, especially at the climax in which our in-your-face hero is mixed into tracking shots of high rise ghettos.
The performances are absolutely superb, focussed and believable. Marie’s Bumper and Phoebe Rain as the abused Tirella both have breakdown moments which are unbearably moving in the helpless extremity of their distress. Brown’s One Ton purveys a very convincing menace, and Dymond x as Mad Mic brings great timing to the play’s rare comic opportunities.
Excellent as Bullet Tongue Reloaded is, it could probably do with a trim. It’s a demanding hour and a half with no interval, and perhaps packs in too many characters and storylines to satisfyingly pull them all off. The non-gang characters are also treated a little simplistically: Yasmin’s journalistic ambition is depicted as essentially self-serving, and a prison worker receives a lecture from Hawk about the reality of how to reduce ex-con’s likelihood of reoffending which feels accurate but a bit patronising.
Bullet Tongue Reloaded may not offer a solution to the problems it dramatises, but it’s not theatre’s job to solve society’s ills. However the practical work The Big House undertakes with its young members is certainly to be applauded.
Writers: Andrew Day, Sonya Hale
Director: Maggie Norris
Box Office: 020 7923 9955
Booking link: https://thebighouse.uk.com/bullet-tongue-reloaded/
Playing until: 15 June 2019