Royal Court, until 6 Oct
Grime has come a long way in the past few years. Formed from a crucible of garage, jungle and dancehall music, it was until recently an entirely underground genre, mentioned by the press only in the context of rising knife crime.
But at some point a broader audience started paying attention: Skepta won a Mercury prize for his album Konnichiwa, Drake became an honorary member of the grime crew Boy Better Know, and the genre got an increasingly firm grip on Britain’s cultural psyche. Poet in da Corner, the first ever bona fide grime musical, feels like the culmination of this winding journey, the final acceptance of grime by Britain’s cultural establishment.
There’s a hard-won joyfulness to the show, which is organised around Dizzee Rascal’s epochal 2003 album Boy in da Corner, with Poet’s creator and star Debris Stevenson performing spoken-word poetry to Dizzee’s beats and flows. Just as grime’s current moment is unthinkable without that album, neither would Stevenson’s singular artistic perspective be possible without its formative influence. Stevenson grew up in the outer reaches of East London, her childhood marked by paralyzing dyslexia and a zealously Mormon mother. She describes discovering Dizzee, and subsequently grime, in revelatory terms, and her semi-autobiographical show feels at times like an eighty-minute thank you to the genre that gave her “permission to exist”.
Not that it’s merely a tribute – Poet in da Corner stands on its own two feet as a vivid, absorbing expression of the multifarious talents of its creator. Stevenson is clearly a gifted writer, with a Dickensian eye for social minutiae, but she’s also a skilled rapper and dancer. Form-blending productions often come off as jarring or disjointed, but here the mix of music, spoken word and dance feels natural, necessary even, despite the energy of the beats occasionally distracting from the story.
Stevenson is ably supported by veteran grime MC Jammz, who plays Stevenson’s closest friend SS Vyper. Jammz, who also has a co-writing credit, is initially an unconfident presence on stage, but he proves himself integral to the show’s musical authenticity.
The potentially thorny issue of grime’s history being told by a white woman is addressed a number of times, most notably in a clash between Stevenson and Vyper where she apologises for glamorising his struggle. These are the show’s weakest moments; there’s an insecurity to them that threatens to become self-flagellating. But it’s hard to dull the effect of writing so exuberant, so assured. Even at its messiest, Poet in da Corner has an endearing DIY quality to it, one that’s true to the spirit of the genre that inspired it. Stevenson, like grime, has emerged triumphant.