Review: FCUK’D at The Bunker Theatre

There’s a particularly poignant moment in Niall Ransome’s FCUK’D, in which two frightened boys huddle together under a railway bridge in the freezing cold, while above them commuters are absorbed in their phones and Christmas revellers make their merry way home, all of them oblivious to the children who need their help just yards away.

While this image has plenty to say about our society and way of life, it’s also a pretty good metaphor for the show itself. While other theatres opt for the crowd-pleasing spectacle of panto, not far away The Bunker is quietly doing something very different to mark the festive season – reminding us along the way that not everyone is celebrating just because it’s Christmas. FCUK’D is a simple, understated yet incredibly hard-hitting one-man show about seventeen-year-old Boy and his little brother Matty. Having been abandoned by their father and neglected by their mother, Boy lives every day in terror of Matty – the person he cares about more than anyone else in the world – being taken away. And he’s willing to do anything, even go on the run, to prevent that from happening.

Photo credit: Andreas Lambis

However touching Boy’s motivation, when it inevitably happens the two brothers’ flight always seems like a doomed enterprise. Boy is, by his own admission, rash and immature; he has no idea what he’s doing and is clearly as terrified as his confused little brother. Driven by desperation and fear, the pair have no money, shelter or transport and are forced to take increasingly extreme measures to survive in the freezing December temperatures. Their devotion to each other is such that we want them to make it, and yet we have to acknowledge their situation is unsustainable, and to question if this really is the way to give Matty his best chance – even if the alternative is a system that isn’t doing enough to help young people in trouble until it’s too late.

Will Mytum gives an utterly compelling solo performance as both Boy and Matty (he even has a convincing play-fight with himself at one point). Delivering Niall Ransome’s rhyming verse in a way that highlights the poetry but still sounds completely natural, Mytum has all the swagger and false confidence of any teenager, but with a haunted expression that reveals the self-loathing and insecurity lurking not far beneath the surface. Then, all of a sudden, it’s like a switch is thrown as he transforms into Matty and we see all the fear and doubt fall away. Matty is adorable – innocent, inquisitive, and with such absolute faith in his big brother that he’ll follow him anywhere, no matter what it might cost.

Photo credit: Andreas Lambis

The rest of the production, which is also directed by Niall Ransome, is similarly understated, with effects that – unlike in many festive shows – support the central performance without trying to be the main focus. Peter Wilson’s ominous score helps to build the tension, while the set by Grace Venning captures the harsh urban environment of Boy and Matty’s world. And Jess Bernberg’s brilliantly effective lighting combines with Ransome’s words to show us things we can’t see, like the flickering orange of a flame, or the blue lights of an approaching police car.

FCUK’D is not your typical Christmas show, but that’s not a bad thing; pantos are always good festive fun, but they’re also about as far from the real world as it’s possible to get. At this time of year perhaps more than any other, when we can get so absorbed by shopping, wrapping, cooking and partying, a shot of reality – however sobering – might be just what’s needed.

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… 😉

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… 😉