Features Published 6 December 2019

The Big House: “Believing in me when I didn’t believe in myself.”

Housed in a former mirror factory, The Big House works with at-risk young people to make theatre that reflects their experiences. Lily Levinson talks to the participants in their new performance, 1st Luv.

Lily Levinson

1st Luv in performance. Photograph: Dylan Nolte

“Please wipe your feet before you enter the school,” Mr Peterson tells the audience trooping in from the bar foyer. Mr Peterson is played by one of the fifteen young care-leavers (aged 19-25) in the cast of 1st Luv, all of whom perform the show with a wit and abandon that sometimes makes it enjoyably hard to tell who’s playing a pupil and who’s meant to be a teacher. The ‘school’ is their theatre space, a rectangular room behind a huge industrial fire door. The cast have been coming to this building regularly since September, for rehearsals and workshops. They’ve been learning how to channel their frustrations and control difficult emotions through drama, but in the last week this room has been transformed (by Georgia Lowe’s set design) into a very different learning environment, ready for a run of performances to public audiences. The floor is a slightly squishy material. Everything is baby pink. The audience sit on benches against the walls. Mr Peterson thanks us for coming, asks us to keep an eye out for the Ofsted Inspector, and exits to one of the dark rooms beyond. As he walks out his step glitches suddenly, or maybe it’s a tiny leap of anticipatory excitement.

The Big House, a charity that makes theatre with at-risk young people, moved to this building – an old mirror-making factory – on Englefield Road in Islington last year. This is their second show in the space. Ned Bennett, 1st Luv’s director, who previously worked with the charity on Brixton Rock in 2017, says that having “a place that is theirs” has made a noticeable difference. The audience wipe their feet to enter a space that the young theatre-makers have been visiting for full-time rehearsals, forty hours a week over the past month. Before rehearsals, they came for Life Skills workshops three days a week for three weeks. Before that, some of them attended regular Thursday evening drop-ins here. Upstairs, there’s a library with dark green-blue walls, gradually filling up with donated books. The Big House is a steady place set against the chaos that often exists elsewhere in their lives.

1st Luv in performance at The Big House. Photograph: Dylan Nolte

Back at primary school in the rectangular pink room, Bethany B and her best (only) friend Lolli are having an argument. It’s the Year Six Leavers’ Prom next week and Lolli thinks that Bethany B should get Blakey to invite her to it. Bethany B does like Blakey – she composes love songs to him up in the music room, rapping about their future together (“I hope we both go to the same secondary”) over a grime beat that echoes and chimes through the play – but there are a couple of problems. One, Bethany B and Lolli are still in Year Five, and two, Bethany B prefers not to talk to anyone. She’s been brought up in foster care, moved around the country every time her birth mother Mumsy manages to find out where she’s living. What’s the point in making the effort to trust and confide in people, if they’re going to leave her or she’s going to have to leave them?

1st Luv is very different to other Big House shows, everyone I speak to says. “The Big House has a reputation for hard-hitting stories,” says Harmony Abiwon, who plays Mumsy and also works as a pastoral support ‘buddy’ for the other company members. She first encountered the organisation when she was seventeen and her leaving care counsel took her to see BABY/LON, an immersive, promenade experience variously described in the press as “gritty”, “visceral”, “violent”, “wrenching” and “intense”. Bullet Tongue, the company’s most recent production, dealt with county lines drug dealing and related gun violence.

But 1st Luv, in its squishy pink room, is about how first love forms us. It is a warmer, gentler show than audiences might be expecting from a company working with at-risk young people – Abiwon says that at first the cast also found the theme unexpected. Debris Stevenson, the play’s creator, has made something optimistic and positive, ending on a note of hope. Writer Andy Day, who worked on the script, describes it as a romcom. He’s been working with the Big House since the beginning, and says that “it’s nice to write something that I can bring my five-year-old son to see.” Talking to me after her brilliantly natural performance as Bethany B, Sarah Beth Harber is serious-minded and acute about the themes of the show. “It’s about all kinds of love, not just what you might think. It’s about love between Blakey and his twin brother, and even Bethany B and Lolli.”

This feels radical. Nathan Lucky Wood has written in Exeunt about the dangers of making work with vulnerable people that is too narrowly focused on the reasons they are vulnerable. You risk telling people that certain traumatic facts of their lives are central to their identities, implying that the art they make is meaningless unless it harkens back to those traumas. 1st Luv is about much more than Bethany B’s experience of the care system. It doesn’t ignore how that might affect the ways she feels able to love and be loved, but it’s also very much also about her love of making music, and about a whole host of other characters with their own troubles and worries, both big and small.

A picture on the Big House’s Twitter gives a glimpse into rehearsals as led by Bennett: it’s an A3 sheet of paper with a mind map of playground activities: “hopscotch”, “hide & seek”, “selling sweets”, “duck, duck, GOOSE!” By exploring more universal childhood experiences, it avoids over-emphasising the specific childhood experience shared by the young people making the show. “When you’re living adult life, you’re feeling negative a lot of the time,” Harber says. “But doing this [show] gives me perspective that’s kind of like nostalgia. Even though I still have my own issues, I can look at how far I’ve come.”

The way the Big House handles the making process is more significant than the thematic content of the final productions, though. The need to find a balance between flexibility and structure runs through its working practices. The cast have to be adaptable: the risks of disruptive events like homelessness and arrest are often high, and on the night I saw 1st Luv associate director Lauren Dickson had to step in to the role of Bethany B’s foster carer. But the overiding ethos isn’t ‘the show must go on!’ Press night had already been delayed. Ensuring that everyone has access to the pastoral care and emotional tools they need to handle that kind of situation comes first.

1st Luv. Photograph: Dylan Nolte

Maggie Norris, the Big House’s CEO and Artistic Director, tells me that “the play is really the last thing; it’s a shop window for the actors’ abilities, and it’s inspiring for them, that they’re capable of making it,” but the charity’s primary concern is the emotional wellbeing of the care leavers involved with it. They only take fifteen people each year, maximum. It means that, during the time she spends with the group, Norris has the chance to notice things that over-burdened social workers miss, like who needs glasses, or who will need someone to bring them a change of clothes in hospital. As she sees it, the Big House exists to provide both short- and long-term pastoral support: “once the play finishes and the audience go home, we don’t abandon them.”

Abiwon gives me a closer insight into the Big House’s work. She tells me that years after seeing BABY/LON, “when I was going through a really difficult time, my personal advisor suggested that I might want to try doing an old hobby and I remembered that play. I literally searched through all my emails – because this was six years later – and I started coming to the Thursday drama drop-ins. They were believing in me when I didn’t believe in myself.” She graduated as a social worker last year and has been working for the Big House for a year. She’s not the only member with a long-term connection. Jasmine Jobson, who has a lead role in the Netflix-produced season 3 of Top Boy, is still in touch with Norris seven years after she went through the programme and appeared in Phoenix.  There are other ex-actors in the audience on the night I see the show.

There’s one more problem in the world of the play, announced in a delightfully offhand way by Ava, the school misfit, wearing a knitted Viking hat and her arm in a sling: “The world’s going to end. That girl with the starey eyes says so.”

1st Luv is a romcom, but it is also about uncertainty and lack of stability and the unpredictability of the future. Bennett talks about how the cast helped author their own characters, and to develop the production’s theatrical language, “flipping between naturalism and expressionism.” Leon Lenga-Kroma chose to play the Ofsted Inspector as a mysterious, silent whirling figure with a yellow clipboard: he spins darkly, intermittently, into the centre of the action and disappears again. It’s like he infects the other characters with movements that hover, unexplained, on the edge of dance, like the hop-skip as Mr Peterson leaves the stage. With that mode of theatrical storytelling present in the room, another cast member remembered the way one of her teachers used to rhythmically click her fingers, slap her chest twice, and then ‘shhh’ the class. By allowing the actors to contribute, to collaboratively build the play, they find the final image of the show.

The Big House seemed to me to be doing all the right things. Stevenson, Bennett, Day and grime artist Jammz have created a production that’s weird and funny and moving. 1st Luv is performed by a cast of people who have been given genuine agency in its making process as well as the support and stability needed to deal with its subject matter – not just for twelve weeks, but for as long as they need it to grow in self-confidence. The whole cast clicks their fingers, slaps their chests and ‘shhhs’ the audience. The lights go down. But under Norris’s directorship, the charity’s most significant achievements are “all the things the audience don’t see.”

1st Luv is on at The Big House until Saturday 14th December. More info and tickets here

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Lily Levinson

Read more of Lily Levinson's work on https://malcolmmooney.wordpress.com/

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