The Big House is gaining a solid reputation for making raw, powerful work with at-risk young people, and Bullet Tongue is no exception, a tense, troubling look at London’s gang culture told from the perspective of 16-year-old petty drug dealer Bumper.
The character is brought to vivid, formidable life in an extraordinary performance by Shonagh Woodburn-Hall, all steely swagger and internalised fury. A strong supporting cast tackle the remaining material with real confidence, with Dymond Allen particularly standing out, providing an outsider’s perspective and some outrageously charismatic wisecracks as Bumper’s mother’s former lover Mad Mick.
Leading its audience through a succession of claustrophobic concrete chambers and unexpectedly bright nooks, the promenade piece shows off the company’s new venue, set in a converted Islington factory, to great effect.
While director Maggie Norris’ staging necessitates a certain amount of backtracking between the same key locations, and a lot of peering around oddly-shaped corners, there’s a real pleasure in her inventive and surprising use of space. An Eastbourne caravan site is hidden in the basement. A dark alley is illuminated in spray-painted yellows and pinks courtesy of graffiti artist Tizer.
The script, co-written by Andrew Day and Sonya Hale, and partly devised by the cast, might feel a bit formless at times, but there’s no denying the authenticity of the dialogue, or the reality informing each increasingly bleak scene. As Bumper struggles against the inevitable, her story strikes a delicate balance between dark humour and impending doom.