Touring – reviewed at Royal Court Theatre, London
Debris Stevenson is a multi-hyphenate of a different order – grime poet, academic, dancer and now playwright as her 2018 hit show Poet in da Corner returns to the Royal Court ahead of a UK tour. I didn’t catch it then, not having ever listened to Dizzee Rascal’s album Boy in da Corner, meaning that it didn’t have instant appeal, but on this evidence I was clearly wrong to have given it a miss, its vibrant energy thrilling to behold in this richly theatrical space.
Sitting in the realm of semi-autobiography, Stevenson’s story focuses on her East London upbringing in a Mormon household where schooltime meant working through being bullied, her dyslexia and the need to test her sexuality. At a moment of particular despair, she’s given a copy of that Dizzee Rascal album and it is like a light is switched on, grime offering her a way to build her confidence and explore all of those feelings, discover who she really is.
This she does to powerful effect in the deceptive simplicity of Ola Ince’s production. With just a couple of turntables (on the DJ deck and on the stage), Jacob Hughes’ design pushes the performers to the fore, expertly and inventively lit by Anna Watson. And as rap and spoken word emerge as the primary storytelling modes, along with some evocative dancing (choreography by Aaron Sillis), there’s a compelling sense of the potential of what theatre can be.
And there’s intellectual rigour too here, as Stevenson probes into the complexities of representation and intersectionality. She does this mainly through the figure of Vyper (Jammz), the one who gave her the CD, and who interrupts the show early on from the audience to ask her what right she (as a white woman) has to tell this story in which he (a black man) appears so much. Their constant battling is a pungent reminder that none of this kind of thinking is easy but it remains an essential task (much more so than writing clickbait for the Telegraph) if theatre truly wishes to thrive in contemporary society.