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Theatre company saved my life, says actress who was in care

‘I said I wanted to act but was told by those who are supposed to support me it was unrealistic’

24 January, 2020 — By Calum Fraser

Shonagh Marie, who plays Bumper in the production, found ‘genuine care’ at The Big House

AN actress who was taken into care at 15 after both her parents died has hailed a theatre company in Islington for saving her life as the play they produced about county lines drug dealing is shortlisted for an Off-West End award.

When Shonagh Marie, 20, first turned up at The Big House theatre company in Englefield Road, just off Essex Road, in 2016 she didn’t tell anyone she was a care leaver because she didn’t want the “stigma that came with it”.

Her mother had died when she was four and her father when she was 15, catapulting her into care alone while her brother fell through the “cracks in the system” and into a cycle of crime and homelessness.

Ms Marie has a withering opinion of a care system where she was unable to see her friends because their parents had to undergo background criminal record checks and she was told her dream of becoming an actor was “not realistic”.

A scene from the play Bullet Tongue Reloaded, which has been shortlisted in the ‘ideas and innovation’ category of the Off-West End Awards. Photos: Dylan Nolte

She said: “It felt like people only cared about ticking boxes. I said I wanted to act and I was told by the people who are supposed to support me, who are supposed to be my corporate parents, that my dreams are not realistic.

“Dad was an alcoholic, he was difficult at times, but he was an amazing parent who made us believe we could do anything.”

After playing the lead role in Bullet Tongue Reloaded, a play written in collaboration with care leavers at The Big House, Ms Marie is now signed to the Independent Talent acting agency alongside the likes of ex-James Bond actor Pierce Brosnan and Lord of the Rings star Orlando Bloom.

She said: “The Big House was the first place I could be open to accepting who I am and the traumas I have been through. Other young people here can understand and relate and see what I have been through. I don’t have to hide and they become your family.

“There was consistency and genuine love and care. It saved my life.”

Bullet Tongue Reloaded tells the story of Bumper, played by Ms Marie, and Yasmin, in a world of “county lines” drug dealing.

County lines is a term police use to describe drug dealing methods where inner-city children are groomed by older gang members and sent out to country towns to live in squalid trap-houses.

Bumper is a young mixed-race girl doing whatever she can to get by, while Yasmin is a journalist sent to find a young white middle-class girl who has gone missing and feared to be part of a county lines operation.

Maggie Norris, The Big House’s chief executive and artistic director, said: “Our members input into the play is key to the writing and production process. They wanted to challenge the audience to ask serious questions about how they feel about county lines.

“Most people are understandably horrified about violence and exploitation of minors, but it is an alternative economy grown out of economic need. Young people are involved in this because they don’t have opportunities.”

She added: “Bumper’s story is of the black youth who are ignored by the media today. The play asks the question: What will come from dismantling county lines? Without early support for these children who are identified at three or four as being at risk then another economy will grow up that might be even worse than county lines.”

The play has been shortlisted in the “ideas and innovation” section of the Off-West End Awards, also known as the “Offies”.

Ms Marie said: “I might be biased but I think we deserve to win. There are not enough stories telling the realness and rawness of what is going on in the streets. A lot of the cast involved had never acted before and we have created this amazing project. For me, that is beautiful.”

Bullet Tongue Reloaded was given an extended run last year and Ms Norris said she has had a lot of requests to give it another run this year.

• The winners will be announced at a ceremony in Battersea Arts Centre on March 8.

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