Urban musical The Realness sees ex-convicts and young offenders take to stage

The Realness: Dymond Allen (Leroy) and Ashley Gayle (Jay)

The Realness: Dymond Allen (Leroy) and Ashley Gayle (Jay) - Credit: Archant

It is a rare thing to see a show where the performers have been through the very hardships they are performing on stage, but that is exactly what the aptly titled The Realness is offering.

The new urban musical, about a former offender determined to turn his life around, features a unique cast of young former offenders, care leavers and professional actors.

With its score of rap, reggae, gospel and grime and a script emerging from the stories and experiences of the care leavers, The Realness promises to be thought-provoking and original.

The show’s wonderfully earnest director, Maggie Norris, explains the concept of the group behind the show.

“About seven years ago I directed the musical Bad Girls and I did a lot of research into prisons, prisoners, rehabilitation,” she says.

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“I found myself frustrated to find that 40 per cent of under-21s in prison are care leavers. I decided that that was the time to intercept them. That’s when they’re at their most vulnerable and most likely to spiral out of control unless they’re supported.”

Norris set up theatre company and charity The Big House in 2012. Based at Hackney Downs Studios, it offers drama, mentoring and long-term support to these 16 to 24-year-old care leavers.

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“I found that drama is a fantastic tool to build confidence and to engage with people who are alienated from society.

“It also teaches transferrable skills because a lot of people found it difficult to trust others and felt isolated.”

Success stories

One of these success stories is Jasmine Jobson, 19, who plays Marie in The Realness.

Jobson is a care leaver who sold drugs on the street. She has already performed in previous Big House productions to rave reviews and now has her own agent.

“When she first came to us, she had a lot of anger,” Norris recalls. “It’s very interesting that the system rejected her and yet now she’s absolutely flying.

“With us, going on the journey of making a play creates a family and a lot of trust and collaboration and teamwork is involved.”

Dymond Allen, 35, nods vehemently at this point. The actor, who plays Leroy in the musical, is a care leaver who has been in prison, sold drugs, was a crack addict and a bare-knuckle street fighter.

“If you don’t know who your natural parents are and you’re in the system by yourself, something like The Big House gives you that family, that sense of belonging where people care for you,” he says.

This sense of attachment within the charity is echoed by Jacqui Dubois, a professional actress who has appeared in shows such as The Lion King and Rent.

“They look to me for support and to learn from me, but I also learn from them,” says Dubois.

“When you’re working with care leavers there’s no pretentions or ego that you get with professional actors.”

The Big House has already racked up an impressive reputation on the London theatre scene, but Norris is quick to assure me of the strict discipline in rehearsals.

“It’s very important that the end result is of a very high standard. We didn’t at any point want people patting us on the shoulder saying, ‘Oh, look how well they’ve managed!’”

The Realness runs from November 13 to December 20. Visit thebighouse.uk.com

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