Review: Phoenix Rising at Smithfield Market

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.

Photo credit: Dylan Nolte

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.

Photo credit: Rick Findler

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.

Can’t see the map on iPhone? Try turning your phone to landscape and that should sort it. I don’t know why but I’m working on it… 😉

Interview: Joanna Turner, Baseless Fabric

“Our first scene pops up in a pub or café. The opera singers look like normal people having a drink and then start singing their conversation – so for people who don’t know the performance is about to take place it’s a bit of a surprise!”

Joanna Turner is Artistic Director of UK-based promenade theatre and opera company, Baseless Fabric. Following the success of their 2016 street opera production, Drifting Dragons, they’re about to hit the high street once again with a new production of Mozart’s Cosi Fan Tutte.

“The first scene lasts about ten minutes and then the characters move to a new location, usually a supermarket or library, where they meet up with other characters for the next scene and then onto another location,” explains Joanna. “So people are free to follow the whole story of our characters around the high street or just the short section where they come across us.

“The performances take place in eight different locations across our home borough of Merton, South London, which has huge economic and social differences west to east, so allows us to bring opera directly to where people are going about their daily lives and give people who may otherwise never have the opportunity to experience opera the chance to see it. Last year we did a new opera, Drifting Dragons, inspired by local people’s stories, and had amazing reactions from people – especially those who’d never experienced opera before, didn’t know that what we were performing was opera and were astounded at how loud our singers were! It was wonderful to see their initial bemusement turn to interest and then absolutely engaged with the story and the performances.”

While Drifting Dragons was written to be performed on the high street, the audience reaction was so positive that this year the company have been inspired to try a classic. “Cosi is an opera that I know very well – I was Assistant Director on Opera North’s production a few years ago – and so I already had ideas about how to cut it down, how to re-imagine scenes in a modern context and I’d actually already directed two scenes in a site-specific context at Opera North for Leeds Light Night,” says Joanna. “We did the boys’ opening trio over a pint in the pub – which will be similar to our starting scene – and the girls’ duet, choosing which new boy to flirt with, in a library. So although re-imagining the whole opera for the high street, including cutting it down, writing a new modern English libretto and Leo Geyer arranging the music for three instruments has been a huge amount of work, it was a continuation of these ideas.”

Reducing a three-hour opera to a performance that lasts about an hour has required the team to take some ruthless decisions. “We’ve basically cut anything that doesn’t move the plot forward,” Joanna explains. “There are some gorgeous bits of music in Cosi but they don’t do anything to move the plot forward so they’ve all gone, particularly lots of arias. Most of the ensembles are in but often edited down. One of the main characters, Despina, has been cut – traditionally she’s the girls’ maid, and in a modern high street context she seemed a bit unnecessary, so that was another way to cut out quite a lot of material.”

Joanna’s no stranger to presenting opera in pop-up site-specific contexts, with freelance directing experience that includes the Cosi scenes for Opera North and a project for Welsh National Opera called Nine Stories High, the Wrexham Soap Opera: “Once a month for nine months a short opera scene happened in a high street business in Wrexham – in the shopping centre, Tescos, a bowling alley – and was also filmed and put on YouTube with a jingle so people could watch it live or online like watching a soap opera,” she says. “I loved those projects because the audiences you were reaching were different to regular opera-goers; seeing the reactions from people who’ve never heard an opera singer live before – and so up close to them – plus seeing them get caught up in the storytelling is absolutely thrilling.

“I also enjoy the logistics of promenade performance, which while crazy to work out can be so creative for the storytelling and provide such an enjoyable audience experience. So after freelance pop-up opera work that took place in one location, when we set up the company and were creating promenade theatre work, we wanted to see if we could make promenade opera happen in different places along the high street. Presenting opera in this way also allows us to make relationships with a large number of different local businesses, as the scene in each is so short, and so allows us to reach a large number of people.”

The production is free and unticketed, and the company hope to reach as many local people as possible – particularly those who’ve never seen opera before. “We really want to give people who might never otherwise experience opera a chance to do so. If you already love opera and want to come and see our re-imagining for the high street, that of course is great too, but for opera-lovers it’s aimed at people who enjoy seeing operas cut drastically and re-imagined unexpectedly – this isn’t a production for purists!”

And for those who are new to opera and may be unsure what to expect, Joanna has some advice: “Don’t worry if you can’t hear or understand absolutely all the words all the time. Opera singing is unusual and it can be difficult to hear all the words all the time if you’re not used to it, and especially as sometimes there’s different people all singing different words at the same time! We work hard with the singers to make the words as clear as we can, but don’t worry if you don’t hear absolutely all the words all the time – as hopefully, if I’ve done my job making the storytelling clear, you should be able to understand what’s going on and follow the story – just concentrate on that, and as your ears tune in you’ll hear more and more words.”

Above all, Joanna and the team are looking forward to seeing the audience’s reactions to their new production. “Last year we had such wonderful reactions from people who told us afterwards they’d never seen or heard anything like it before and really loved it,” she says. “And as we’ve been going round the different businesses to get permission to perform there this year, I’ve been overwhelmed with the number of people who’ve said last year it was absolutely amazing and they definitely want us back. So I really hope all the crazy logistics of adapting a classic to the high street work as well as our new piece and people enjoy it as much as last year – and we reach even more people who’ve never experienced opera before.”

As a company, Baseless Fabric’s aim is to engage people to see theatre and opera in unusual ways and to see the world around them in new ways: “One of our reviewers last year described us as ‘a unique company who create unique experiences’ (Everything Theatre) and that’s pretty much the best compliment we could ask for,” says Joanna. “By presenting opera and theatre in promenade and site-specific formats, we want to engage people with art forms they might not otherwise have the initial inclination or opportunity to experience, which also enables them to see and experience their local area in new ways – if you see opera in your local supermarket, or experience theatre through a mobile app while following a character through the park and hear her thoughts on what she sees (our A Secret Life in 2016), that allows you to see the world around you with fresh eyes. Opera in particular is frequently seen as elitist, expensive or not relevant and we want to show that it doesn’t have to be any of these things.

“Baseless Fabric is also a Shakespeare quotation about theatrical magic, something appearing real but isn’t and being gone in an instant, which seems appropriate for our site-specific work. One moment we’re singing in the supermarket, the next we’re gone and the supermarket is back to normal, but the people who saw us won’t forget that experience.

“We want to create work that has a strong focus with our local area, builds a relationship with the people in that area and engages them with art forms that they might not ordinarily experience. We’re a registered charity and engaging with our local community is integral to our work, whether that’s workshops teaching young people about opera, or interviewing elderly people about their memories of being a teenager, and running workshops at schools with teenagers about their relationships with their grandparents and how being a teenager differs then to now (all of which inspired our creation of A Secret Life). We’re also very interested in engaging people with their area’s forgotten history in an unusual theatrical format, and presenting work in public spaces that allows people to see those spaces and the possibilities of theatre and opera in new ways.”

Look out for Cosi Fan Tutte in various locations around Merton from 27th July-6th August. Check the Baseless Fabric website for details; all performances are free and unticketed.