Ashley Gayle as in The Realness. Photograph: Hackney Downs Studios
Ashley Gayle as Jay in The Realness. Photograph: Hackney Downs Studios

The Realness is a traditional musical complete with more than a dozen songs, set on the streets of East London and brought up to date by a vibrant and fiercely committed ensemble.

Created by the team behind Bad Girls: The Musical, the show follows Jay Johnson, a young man trying to go straight on his release from prison.

But Jay’s problem is that back on the streets he is parachuted back into the same community that led to his criminal activity in the first place. He soon finds himself subject to familiar pressures.

His closest acquaintances however have moved on – best friend Mikey is looking to tap into the seemingly limitless market for the East London coffee shop, and Shanice, Jay’s one time girlfriend, has started a course at business college.

Ashley Gayle and Veronique Andre, who play Jay and Shanice, are exceptional. On point with every musical and emotional beat, they are present, committed and vital.

Predictably, Jay’s promises to change cut no ice with Shanice. “Whenever you turn over a new leaf there’s always dog shit underneath,” she says, undercutting his many pledges and oaths.

And spectres of illegality – the drug dealers and rude boys – gather on every corner, ever ready to draw him back down.

Jay’s Achilles’ heel is his anger, thrusting himself into a fight at the slightest insult which Gayle executes with raw precision.

Shanice is equally energised by her resistance to Jay’s “wasteman” attitude. And when she launches into the first of her two solo numbers ‘Turn Around’, her power and directness is enough to send a shiver down the spine.

The speed at which thought becomes action, at which people make flash decisions in life, is rarely presented truthfully on stage. But across the 14-strong cast, there is a live energy that crackles with the authenticity of life on the street.

There is comedy too. ‘Civil Enforcer’, the traffic warden’s anthem, is proof that Kath Gotts’ music and lyrics can blend rap, humour and street life with great affection.

This showstopping number, replete with hi-vis clad backing dancers, sees traffic warden K. M. Drew Boateng bring the house down, as Mikey battles with his Bajan sat nav.

The sat nav’s refrain nags at Jay, the voice of his conscience telling him that he has taken a wrong turn. There are a host of excellent supporting performances and the production values are disarmingly high.

The Big House theatre company, who co-produced The Realness, was founded by director Maggie Norris. Whilst working in prisons and school exclusion units she saw the need for a life skills and theatre training programme which continues to go from strength to strength.

Inspired by the ideas and experiences of the cast members, Norris believes resisting a return to crime is the greatest challenge for anyone after a spell inside and the play is testament to the difficulty of that struggle.

The Realness is at Hackney Downs Studios, 17 Amhurst Terrace, E8 2BT until 20 December.

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