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Serael Asphall as Rox and Veronique Andre as Shanice in The Realness. Photograph: Catherine Ashmore

Whether a hollow boast, a mark of authenticity or merely a matter of taste, the notion of ‘realness’ has been central to contemporary culture for decades.

Hip-hop artists frequently lay claim to being ‘the realest’, from legendary rapper Tupac Shakur to Iggy Azalea.

For the 16-strong cast of a new musical opening at Hackney Downs Studios this November, however, it is about learning to face the harsh realities of life.

Veronique Andre plays Shanice in The Realness, a musical about Jay, a young man who leaves prison and tries to get his life back on track.

“Realness is about what it’s really like on the streets,” she says. “When you leave prison and you go back to your normal life, that’s when the realness dawns on you.”

Jay’s is a journey that reflects the experiences of many of the cast, which is partly composed of care-leavers and ex-offenders performing alongside professional actors.

Co-created by The Big House Theatre Company and Big Broad Productions, the idea was born many years ago when director Maggie Norris was working in prisons and pupil referral units.

Faced with the shocking statistic that 40 per cent of young people in prison have been in care, Norris set up The Big House in 2013 to offer an alternative future for young care leavers.

“The problem with people coming out of prison is that they go back to their old patch. People don’t realise how hard it is to stay on the straight and narrow,” she says.

Offering a course of life skills training, drama workshops and the opportunity to devise and perform a new piece of theatre, the programme is an invaluable stepping-stone for young people making the transition into an independent adult life.

Directing A Christmas Carol in Wormwood Scrubs some years ago, Norris was approached by Jason, a young man eager to be in her production. It wasn’t until he reminded her that she realised this was the same young man who was once her neighbour.

Through The Big House Norris was able to intervene at a critical moment in Jason’s life and he is now delivering talks about the reality of life in prison to young people at risk of offending.

Inspired by the experiences of the participants on The Big House theatre training programme, recent productions have garnered exceptional reviews from local and national press as well as industry professionals.

More importantly, Norris argues that the programme she leads has a profound effect on the lives of the participants.

“It is not about training actors, it’s about building confidence and self esteem,” she says.

“But we still uncover some massive talent who really deserve to be in the profession, and Veronique is one of them.”

The Realness is at Hackney Downs Studios, Amhurst Terrace, E8 2BT from 13 November – 20 December www.hackneydownsstudios.wordpress.com

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