Ooh, I have a lot of love for Debris Stevenson, I really do. This is an incendiary piece of work that has it in it to cause reverberations across theatre. It will be touted as another challenge to the white male canon – which it is – and a pitch for the flow and rhythm of grime artists to be as respected as Shakespeare’s sonnets – which is overdue. But what separates Poet in da Corner from many other works out there is its self-awareness and self-criticism, and that makes this play very special indeed.
In Poet in da Corner, grime artist Debris Stevenson blends theatre and music to bring to life her coming-of-age tale, one that speaks of alienation in her life in East Lindon where school was a trying place of bullying, and home little better with an emotionally abusive mother. The path was not good, but Debris found grime music and, in particular, Dizzee Rascal’s acclaimed debut, Boy in da Corner, and through this, found her voice.
Dizzee Rascal’s 2003 album received huge critical acclaim, winning him the Mercury Music prize when he was just nineteen, but it was this album’s blend of beats and autobiography that spoke to the younger Debris, and she found herself writing her own raps and lyrics and embarking on trips to grime clubs and listening to pirate radio stations, through which she’d meet musicians, rappers – and start a journey of self-discovery.
The show reaps the energy of grime perfectly. The DJ is always on stage and music is as present as spoken word. Indeed, much of Dizzee’s music from the album is given the Debris treatment as she spins her own rhymes over the familiar beats. And its these lyrics that reveal the battles with her mother, her peers and the education system.
But this is no straightforward tale and this, for me, is why this production deserves real praise.
Debris is a woman of Italian descent, and grime very much came about through black male artists. That is not lost here for the best subplot is the reckoning Debris must have with Vyper, the black guy at school – and now a rapper in his own right – who took Debris under his wing only for her to forget him as she rises.
This musical confronts intersectionality head on like a truck and I respect that immensely. The final rap battle between the two friends as Vyper spells it out to Debris that if she weren’t a white girl, none of her success would have come to pass, is a provocative moment. But Debris doesn’t dodge the punch – she takes it on the chin and speaks up again in her own words, on her own stage. This is necessary, complex, nuanced work – and I couldn’t get enough of it.
Direction comes from Ola Ince and it is completely on the money. The pacing is superb, and it is a brave woman who insists on the Court audience getting up on the feet to feel the rhythm as an obligatory part of the show. But, goddammit, it works. Pulsating, electric and heartfelt. Poet in da Corner may well be the first grime musical. Please God, dot let it be the last.
Royal Court Theatre, London, to October 6, 2018.
Tickets from £12.
All production images by Vicky Grout.