Thursday, November 16, 2017

Review: 'Phoenix Rising' below Smithfields Meat Market, 15th November 2017

Phoenix Rising reviewed by David James
Rating: 4 Stars

Put yourself in the shoes of a teenager who's finally escaped the home of their abusive parents. A childhood of emotional and physical neglect has left you at odds with the world: you have no money; you're unemployable; you're nursing several undiagnosed mental health problems; your council-provided flat is surrounded by drug addicts and alcoholics; and you might have you've got a string of convictions for petty theft breathing down your neck. Everything is terrible and you can't see a way out. Who's going to help you?

GPs have a name for what's wrong with patients who come to them with complaints like these: "shit life syndrome". This sounds flippant but isn't meant to be. Doctors explain that people with shit life syndrome genuinely suffer from physical and mental health problems, but the causes are a knot of economic, social, medical and emotional problems that can't be loosened by a magic pill.

Callum (Aston McAuley), the protagonist of The Big House's Phoenix Rising suffers from a classic case of shit life syndrome. He's your classic angry young man who lashes out because "at least he knows one person is fighting for him". We find him living in an extremely grotty flat, his life punctuated by visits from nosy social workers who seem to just want him to say something upbeat so they can say he's making progress on a form. The one positive thing in his life is that he's a promising sprinter, enough for coach Josiah (Charmel Koloko) to take an interest in him and try to forge him into a champion. 

Phoenix Rising is not a very upbeat kind of play and Callum's tale is not a happy one. It's studded with betrayal, nihilism and abject misery - if you're hoping for an uplifting tale of someone beating the odds, go and see something on Shaftesbury Avenue. But if you're up for something a with a palpable sense of reality to it, this provides.

Part of this results from production company The Big House, which works with young people who have been in care (I previously loved their Knife Edge last year). The company was set up by Maggie Norris in 2013 after she learned that almost half of all prisoners under the age of 21 were previously in the care system. This has resulted in a company whose mission statement is to "break this cycle and many others that care leavers find themselves trapped in". Alongside dramatic training, they provide counselling and long-term support to enable marginalised young people to live independently.  Phoenix Rising is the finale of one of their projects: developed and performed by the participants alongside a professional writer (in this case Andrew Day).

I'm always a little nervous about seeing plays built on such noble foundations. What if it's rubbish? Critically demolishing a charity production just isn't a good look. But if it was terrible that's precisely what I'd have to do.

Fortunately, Phoenix Rising is great. While the overall story is pretty miserable, the piece is studded with funny moments and charismatic performances. Every actor gets a moment to shine, with particular kudos going to Jordan Bangura, Perrina Allen, Daniel Akilimali and Rebecca Oldfield. Excellent though they are, it's Aston McAuley that really grabs the eye: simultaneously relatable and intimidating,  and pitiable and proud.

Callum's story is knitted together from a multitude of observations about life in care, ranging from the cold-blooded trauma of having your children removed from you by court order, to the over-prescription of anti-depressants ("I don't want to look at shit and think it's chocolate ice cream!"), to the alienation of mental health patients, to the indignity of having your entire life bundled into a manila folder for any yahoo at the council to leaf through. Taken as a whole, it feels real, something only bolstered by the sincere and committed performers.

Also shouldering some of this is Maggie Norris' direction and choice of location. The car park underneath Smithfields Meat Market is all stained concrete and crumbling Victorian brickwork, with the dramatic lighting heightening the feeling that these events take place below society's notice. The slight tang of stale piss in some corners of the place contributes to this - it's a rare show that's improved by smelling a bit pissy.

Phoenix Rising comes at an entirely appropriate time. Many of the problems these characters face are directly rooted in the austerity economics of the current Conservative government. Today saw the release of a landmark study in the British Medical Journal that concluded that their cuts to health and social care resulted in 45,000 more deaths between 2010 and 2014 than would have been expected if funding had stayed at pre-2010 levels. Based on these figures, the authors predict that 2015 to 2020 will see approximately 150,000 avoidable deaths due to these cuts. This is plainly described as "economic murder".

Without being preachy, Phoenix Rising shows us precisely what a rubber stamp in a wood-panelled Westminster office does to people's lives. With consequences like these, no wonder so many are suffer from chronic cases of shit life syndrome. Something needs to change. And fast.

Phoenix Rising runs until 2nd December. Tickets here.

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