There are several reasons to go and see The Big House’s revival of their acclaimed debut Phoenix – now reworked as Phoenix Rising – and that’s before we even start talking about the production itself. First, the venue; it’s not often you get to watch a show in an underground car park beneath Smithfield Market, after all. Second: The Big House is an incredible organisation working with young care leavers – in their own words, they offer “a place where people who may have given up on themselves gain the skills and confidence to turn their lives around”. And as if all that wasn’t enough, this particular show is dedicated to the memory of Dwayne Kieran Nero, the original Phoenix cast member whose experience with MS inspired the first production in 2013.
Now, in case you’re not already convinced – let’s talk about the show, which is up there with any seasoned, professional company. Written by Andrew Day in collaboration with the cast, it’s the story of 18-year-old care leaver Callum, played by the exceptionally talented Aston McAuley. Suddenly he finds himself alone in a dirty flat, visited by a parade of social workers who say the right things but ultimately achieve nothing, and haunted by memories of his difficult childhood. A promising sprinter, Callum throws himself into training – but then something strange starts to happen to his legs, and the fragile future he’s started to build for himself comes crashing down.
Though it’s a revival of the original Phoenix, the story has been reworked to incorporate the life experiences of its new cast, so perhaps it’s no surprise that the performances all come across as particularly raw and heartfelt. The anger and pain – but also resilience and humour – that we see in Callum, his friends Omar and Bready (Jordan Bangura and Daniel Akilimali), his girlfriend Nina (Perrina Allen) and neighbour Hannah (Rebecca Farinre) are all the more powerful because we know they come from a real place; in this case, acting and pretending are far from the same thing.
The promenade performance (top tip: wear comfy shoes and layer up), deftly directed by The Big House founder Maggie Norris, takes us into every corner of the chilly, echoey but surprisingly atmospheric venue, returning again and again to the race track at the centre. Here is where the story begins, and perhaps where it will end; it’s where Callum’s enjoyed some of his finest moments, but it’s also where he has to face his army of demons – an army hauntingly portrayed by the cast in dream-like sequences, led by the mocking, skeletal figure of Oz Enver as the Disease.
Let’s not beat around the bush; Phoenix Rising is a devastating story in many ways, forcing us whether we like it or not to confront the harsh reality that so many young people in the UK face every day. But the very fact that the production is happening at all offers a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel, and the commitment, energy and realised potential of the company can’t help but leave us uplifted, encouraged and motivated to take action. With organisations like The Big House to lead the way, it’s possible to believe things can and will get better.
Phoenix Rising is at Smithfield Market until 2nd December.