The first thing that strikes you about Andrew Day’s Phoenix Rising is the unusual setting, audience members gather in the upstairs room of a nearby pub before being led, tour guide style, to the cavernous underground car park of Smithfield’s Meat Market. As a group of young men limber up on a running track, the metal roller shutter descends ominously, as if sealing you in to their world.
This is a re-imagined, and recast version of The Big House’s phenomenally successful Phoenix, staged for the first time four years ago. The company’s mission is to support young care leavers to reach their full potential, and that leads to the second thing to strike you about Phoenix Rising, this story has been formed by the life experiences of the people performing it, making it feel as real as any performance could possibly be.
The story revolves around Callum, an eighteen year old who has spent the last few years of his childhood in foster care. This marks the “start of his adult life”, but it’s already a start on the back foot. Over the course of the performance we see flashbacks to his troubled upbringing, his unfit mother obsessing over the demons coming at her through her TV screen. But, as an adult, Callum has his own demon, a disease, following him like a physically manifested shadow.
Callum has promise as a runner, but constant adversity holds him back. The offer of help from a coach seems to be a step in the right direction, but Callum’s own anger and frustration is his biggest enemy. Even when he meets a girl, he is unable to sustain the relationship, and the ghosts of his past continually resurface.
The staging sees the audience follow the action around the vast space, it works wonderfully well as the line between performance space and audience becomes so blurred it disappears. Director Maggie Norris, has constructed an enthralling performance that keeps the audience on their toes, but totally engrossed in the painfully real characters.
Zoe Spurr’s brilliant lighting design means there is little intervention required from cast and crew to get the audience to the right area, as one scene naturally ends, the next is illuminated in such a way that the audience are drawn there like a moth to a flame. What we watch can, at times be uncomfortable, but like the moth we just cannot pull ourselves away.
In the role of Callum, Aston McAuley is superb. He grabs the audience’s attention from the outset, with a fully formed, and developed performance which leaves you in no doubt about the pain, and disappointment the character has continually faced. McAuley’s performance, supported by the staging, draws you deep into the action.
Oz Enver, officially listed as ‘Disease’, stalks Callum with a beguiling physical dexterity, contorting his body to mimic the anguish felt by the lead character. There are some lighter notes within the distinctly darker piece, Daniel Akilimali as Bready and Melissa Madden as Adebola, both bring an element of comedy, enveloped in their own tragedies.
Phoenix Rising is a deeply emotional piece of drama, heightened by the realism which sits behind it. The innovative, and brilliantly executed staging pulls you in to the heart of the production. The entire cast give everything they’ve got, and perform with real passion, it is, after all, their own inspiring story.