A stage full of grime for a new audience

Urban music has grown up and is now going into the theatre. Matilda Egere-Cooper hails the opening of a gritty show

When grime music first crackled out of the corners of |east London in the early Noughties, it was considered the rebellious antidote to UK garage’s rapid popularity and demise. Led by gangs of hoodies trading their horror stories of growing up in the inner city, it was intimidating but experimental and was theatrical at its core – elements that would inspire the production of 8sixteen32, a grime theatre show that, having been five years in the making, is set to tour the UK.

While the feasibility of urban theatre in this country has been tested through Jonzi D’s hip-hop theatre campaigns in the early Nineties, and later, the crossover success of Zoo Nation’s Into the Hoods in the West End, and Boy Blue Entertainment’s Pied Piper at the Barbican, grime theatre has chosen to be less about commercialised song-and-dance for an X Factor-generation, and more about delivering the authentic story of a scene which yearns to be understood.

One of the show’s cast members, RTKal, 20, explains. “People don’t see the vulnerability of grime,” he says. “They just see it as this aggressive thing. We’re just normal people that go through really normal things.”

The significance of this new kind of theatre lies in the style: the cast are all artists with their own budding careers, and the comical narrative is rapped in the speedy, 8/16/32 bars and rhythm structure unique to the genre, hence the title. The story itself revolves around four friends who all have aspirations to make a name for themselves as the next big MC – but when the opportunity arises for them to enter a competition to win the ultimate MC’s mobile phone (complete with studio and recording apps), their relationship is put to the test, while the real agenda of the phone company comes to light.

Despite being conceived five years ago, the story is a timely reflection of how grime artists have advanced in the music industry. “It’s quite interesting in that a lot of the original MCs from the heyday of grime are now big pop stars,” points out Charlie Dark, the show’s artistic director. “So if anything, I think 8sixteen32 is a document of how the scene was and how far it’s come.”

When it was commissioned, as a series of writing workshops by the Birmingham Repertory Theatre, the initial project saw at least 40 MCs turn up. But after a period which tested each participant’s ability and commitment, this was eventually whittled down to a quartet – Professor D (Auden Allen Jr), LCB (Leon Burke), RTKal (Joshua Holness), and Evoke (Shaun Welch) – a charismatic and energetic group who came to be known as the Decypher Collective.

In 2007, Birmingham-born hip-hop and spoken-word artist Polar Bear (Steven Camden) and director Leo Kay were drafted in to give the production its finishing touches, while breakbeat producer Mark De Clive-Lowe provided the music. An early version of the show appeared at The Rep in 2008, and more recently, it wowed crowds at the Latititude festival in Suffolk – suggesting there could be real potential in grime theatre connecting with the masses, even if the music in its purest form is still yet to penetrate the mainstream.

But De Clive-Lowe reckons the show will appeal to both ends of the spectrum. “For people who feel like urban UK music is too alien, it gives them another angle to appreciate it from as well as some real-life story to relate to it through,” he says. “And for people who find theatre to be too dusty and old school, but love their club music, it gives them a reason to get into the medium of theatre and stage. And it’s the best of both worlds – the music facilitates the storytelling and the storytelling facilitates the music.”

‘8sixteen32’ tours the UK until 28 October ( www.8sixteen32.com)