UK Drill Project review – a gripping journey into the demonized rap scene

Seven actors in balaclavas emerge on stage, rapping and filming themselves. They tell the story of the drill scene through its own medium of songs, social media posts and music videos. Co-winner of the Oxford Samuel Beckett Theater Trust Prize 2022, The UK Drill Project explores the criminalization of a subculture with originality of form.

“Writing lyrics has never been so dangerous,” says one character, and we hear reports of how young black rappers are being convicted of inciting gang violence based on their songs, despite the lack of forensic evidence.

The story features the 079 gang, whose members lounge on a sofa, post messages on social media or spit lyrics on a central platform. The drama of their lives is overlaid with reports of major socio-political realities – youth centers being closed, for example – and the moral panic around exercise.

Related: ‘I wanted to show their innocence’: Teenage rappers take center stage in daring new piece

It is produced by theater collective HighRise Entertainment and while the layered use of music, video projection and snippets of testimonials is inventive and gripping, the story itself is confusing and disjointed with comedic interludes. awkward, though there’s an effective scene that sees cops “mistakenly” ‘decoding’ the lyrics.

Written and directed by Dominic Garfield, with additional material and lyrics from the cast, the characters speak in authentic MLE (Multicultural London English), but they sound too generic. Some personal moments are explored – the memory of a racist bullying figure at school, another man’s unsettling entry into prison life – but these are too brief. The dialogue comes in snatches and sometimes the actors talk to each other. The final scene, which digs into a character’s psyche as he identifies his deceased brother, contains a depth of emotion that the rest of the drama lacks.

The music, however, is really exciting (Executive Music Director Kwame “KZ” Kwei-Armah Jnr with thrilling live music and composition by Skanda Sabbagh). Actors are stronger when they sing too. Its visual effects are immersive and evoke the feel of a drill club (lighting by Simisola Majekodunmi; video design by Dan Light).

Whatever its shortcomings, the production has energy and provides symbolic validation of drill as an expressive art form, worthy of a central London stage.

• At the Pit, Barbican, until 12 November.

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