8 November – 2 December 2017
by Andrew Day
Directed by Maggie Norris
Photography by Dylan Nolte
Phoenix Rising, a re-staging and re-imagining of The Big House’ acclaimed debut play Phoenix, is the bitter, painful, but ultimately hopeful story of Callum (Aston Mcauley), an 18-year-old just leaving foster care trying desperately to chase his dream of becoming a runner. At his side are his friends Omar and Bready, his trainer Josiah, his girlfriend Nina, and a series of exhausted but well-meaning social workers.
But are they truly at his side? Well, as in life, it’s more complicated than that. The characters of Phoenix Rising behave like real people in a desperate situation: They are frustrated, they make mistakes, they are selfish and cruel and sometimes wonderfully kind. The Big House crafted a world full of hopeful, intelligent human beings constantly beaten down by a system that just doesn’t work the way it should.
Different characters respond to this assault in different ways: Aston Mccauley’s Callum is shown to be an intelligent and sensitive young man who is overwhelmed by rage at the injustice of his situation; Rebecca Farinre’s Hannah is a young mother so overwhelmed by the reality of raising a young daughter alone that she slowly and quietly disconnects from the world around her; and Perrina Allen’s Nina is so frustrated by the lack of prospects for her life that she lashes out at those around he with surprising and bitter cruelty.
A great triumph of Phoenix Rising is that all of these characters feel absolutely real. This is due in no small part to Andrew Day’s excellent writing, which manages to give sparklingly soulful and intelligent voice to the thoughts and feelings of these people. Day’s writing is expertly paced and always deeply human, breaking up the characters’ constant struggle with moments of levity, humour and hope. The play is unforgiving towards its characters, never giving them an easy way out, and constantly tempting them with false hopes; but that just means that when they finally do start to see some light at the end of the tunnel, we the audience know how much that hope truly means.
The acting, though inconsistent in parts, is generally very strong, and in places reaches truly beautiful moments of raw, bitter feeling. There are several moments throughout the play, for example: one in which the normally reticent Hannah pulls Callum into a surprising and much-needed embrace, that seem to spring from such a deeply felt and authentic place that one cannot help but be moved by them. There are many of these stark, human moments throughout the play, and each one is bracing and beautiful. In addition, the chemistry between Callum and his friends Omar (Jordan Bangura) and Bready (Daniel Akilimali) is wonderful, and any scene between the three of them is instantly lit up by an authentic joy and humour. Also worthy of praise is the harrowing, terrifying movement work of Oz Enver, who haunts and torments Callum as a twisted and grim spectre throughout the play.
Supporting all of these elements is the inspired choice of venue. Phoenix Rising is performed in the car park of London’s iconic Smithfield Market, and I cannot imagine a better place to tell this story. The audience is shepherded between the different rooms and environments set up around the car park, and the setting, along with some masterful lighting and set design choices, lead to a very full and authentic atmosphere. The play leads you from scene to scene, treading through the darkness towards an illuminated point ahead of you, a point which holds the secret of what will happen next in the story, as if you too were one of these characters, being pulled around by forces of fate beyond their control.
Phoenix Rising tells a bitter, painful story punctuated by moments of humour and humanity. It is a story that goes to unexpected places, and deals with characters that behave in unexpected but very believable ways. The brilliant writing, rich performances, and well-used immersive elements come together to support an all-too-real tale of young people trying their very best to get by in a system that just isn’t there to help them.
This review was written by Sam Wells, Theatre Box’s newest contributor!