a thrilling and candid experience
Well, 2003 was a significant year in popular culture for me. Cristiano Ronaldo made his Manchester United debut, The Order Of The Phoenix was released, Apple launched iTunes and Dizzee Rascal won the Mercury Music Prize for his debut album Boy In Da Corner. This win catapulted Dizzee and Grime into the mainstream and cemented his place in the British music canon. It was a significant moment to my peers and me, a moment where we felt that our stories were suddenly being recognized and given more value. Fifteen years later that seminal album is now the subject of a play by Debris Stevenson, which chronicles how the album helped shape a future as it mirrored her present.
The result is an at times thrilling and candid experience marred only by some technical issues during the performance I saw and some curious production choices, which left me overwhelmed.
Proceedings get underway with Stevenson being given an MC’s introduction and those early minutes where dance, lyrics and lights are supposed to dazzle were in fact a little too relentless to really adjust to the piece. Being no stranger to the world of MC battles and the environments the play is often depicting, I didn’t need my hand held but it was too much too soon and that meant my energy was nearly drained to depletion within five minutes. However the production soon settles into a rhythm that resists opportunities to repeat that early misstep.
Aided by Jacob Hughes’s set that often merges the iconic black and yellow palette of Boy In Da Corner’s album cover and transforms into tower blocks, grassy parks, parties and Stevenson’s home, all the scene changes fully use and fuse design, light and space to place us in the manor, mind and mood of Stevenson.
When the play hits its stride it does some things really well via a curious motif of having a fellow MC, Vyper played by MC Jammz commenting and disputing Stevenson’s version of events. Here the play excels as it raises questions about appropriation, riffing on race, gender and cultural authenticity, often by asking the question, whose pain is greater?
It could be argued that Vyper’s is because of his race and socio-economic status but the more we are given insight into Stevenson’s strict religious upbringing and the tales of that torment and torture, some physical but most mental, we are able to formulate an argument for her and find a way to feel just how much Dizzee and Grime helped her channel all of this anguish into something undeniably uplifting and useful.
Whilst this is Stevenson’s show, Cassie Clare as both Stevenson’s mother and a host of other characters is a standout often straddling between overt and surreptitious sexuality, sly slices of sisterhood, and stabs of sleek sinewy dance. Her support is a strong part of the plays success.
Poet In Da Corner is a fine example of Grime’s key influence, solidifying its status as one of the most influential aspects of British multiculturalism.
Unfortunately for someone who loves the album upon which it is based and who knows it well I was left a touch disappointed by how the album and tracks were incorporated. Whether there was too much going on musically for me to hear in certain moments or the songs were just omitted I was hoping for a more linear and noticeable fusion.
Overall Poet In Da Corner feels like a groundbreaking announcement of a new talent but is left slightly wanting as a groundbreaking attempt to fuse Grime music into theatrical storytelling.
Technical issues with sound and some noticeable mistakes with line delivery took me out of the experience and dulled the sharpness of the show.
However it marks Stevenson out as someone to watch and may even inspire a new wave of album to stage adaptions. It is also another fine example of Grime’s key influence, solidifying its status as one of the most influential aspects of British multiculturalism since Windrush and one of the most significant shifts in UK music since the emergence of rave and club culture in the 90s.