'BABY/LON', the second work by Hackney-based theatre company The Big House, is a big story; one of homelessness, violence, motherhood on the lowest rungs of society and the struggle when what's right for a child can feel almost entirely wrong for the mother. This scale is abundantly clear on entering The Big House's cavernous warehouse venue to find the walls, floor, even the ceiling, dressed and decorated to form a half-real, half-surreal dreamworld – this is clearly a step-up for the fledgling company.
It's remarkable to see such accomplished work by such fledgling performers.
Thankfully, what is retained from Big House's previous work is the sheer energy of the production. As we see protagonist Madeline fight, fornicate and flee her way forward, the action comes from every angle, erupting mid-crowd or appearing spotlit in a darkened corner of the promenade stage, prompting the audience to almost run to keep up.
The story is essentially two-in-one; Madeline's pregnancy and fight to keep her baby interwoven with gang-soldier Luke's struggle to get away from his life of crime, both punctuated by glimpses of the stories of the supporting cast.
If the show has a real weakness it's that these plot points seem slightly awkwardly interconnected, prompting the question of why these particular narrative strands have been forced together. However, this question is well and truly answered when one discovers that these are the real-life stories of the actors in front of you. Certain elements, such as the Greek chorus of daughters-to-be, still seem a little self-indulgently stylistic but knowing the realness of the play's beating heart gives it an authenticity which matches the cast's energetic, honest performances.
On the subject of the cast, it's remarkable to see such accomplished work by such fledgling performers. For many, this is their first ever acting role but this fact rarely shows through and the standard is kept universally high.
One of those making their on-stage debut is Bobbie Byrne as Madeline who provides a suitably angry and impassioned centre to the play. For me though, especial praise has to go to the gangland trio of Aaron Russell-Andrews, Kevin Mateaw and Jason Rock as Angel, Nando and Luke. The balance of Angel's psychopathic grandstanding and Nando's quiet menace works extremely well in their shared scenes and Luke makes a superb, reluctant third to the group. Traumatised by the violence around him but trapped in 'the organisation' by threats to those he loves we truly feel for him and the injection of a little dark humour into such a wretched character only makes this go further.
When the three are on-stage together, the effect of being at such close quarters to them is pretty unsettling – so much so that it comes as a real surprise during the curtain call to watch these callous hard-men turn back into excited teenage boys
These fine performances combine with striking set-design and
production to make for a work whose 90-minute runtime feels like no time at all
to be on your feet. final dramatic
tableau of Madeleine striding off into the big scary world is particularly
stunning; a worthy crescendo to such an energetic, pacey piece.
BABY/LON is both engaging and affecting, dealing with important issues in a way that makes them immediately real to anyone watching. While its venue is a bit of a slog to get to, this is a little gem of fringe theatre and well-worth the journey.