‘On stage I have a release’: the theatre making stars of care leavers

Nkechi Simms buzzes. “I’m nervously excited,” she said, just days before her new show PRU (which stands for Pupil Referral Unit) hit TV screens. It would be a huge accomplishment for any 22-year old to get a role in Top Boy on Netflix and then star in a BBC comedy. 

But Simms’ odds were slimmer than most. The Londoner was 12 years old when she left her mainstream school. By 19, she was “in a bit of a pickle”. She had “the foulest temper” and wasn’t ready for higher education. 

She ended up at the Big House, a charity that supports care leavers who are at risk through drama. This year marks its 10th anniversary.

An independent review of the care system in EnglandThe May 2012 publication of this study demonstrates why such support is so urgent. People who have been in and out of care are greatly overrepresented in both homeless and prison populations. They account for nearly a quarter of each. (Some 0.7 per cent of England’s children are in care at present.)

Maggie Norris, founder of Big House, is clear that none of this is possible. Success stories like Simms’ or that of fellow Big House graduate Jasmine Jobson are proof. The latter was nominated by the Bafta in 2020 for her role as Top Boy. Jobson was once labelled the “worst-behaved child in Westminster” by the authorities, and she used to sell drugs until she put herself into care at 14. She credits her appearance in Big House’s Phoenix (2013) with getting her an agency. 

Big House’s model is simple: it puts on professional shows with care leavers. They often receive glowing feedback. Time Out described the latest, Mission by playwright David Watson, as a “heart-tugging, trippy play about class and self-belief” and gave it four stars. 

But that’s beside the point for Norris. The main goal is to provide pastoral care for young people whose lives can easily spiral out of control, via “discipline and nurture”, in Norris’s words. They build a tight-knit group of 15 people in a small cohort. Participants also receive support in life skills, career counselling, and long-term job-hunting support.

Norris wishes to assist others in setting up local branches, as the project enters its 10th anniversary. 

For 90 minutes, whatever’s going on outside this building goes away

She called for a complete overhaul in the care system, beyond Big House. It’s clear very early on which children are at risk, she said. “Why aren’t we investing then?” she questioned. “It sounds like madness, but say we invested £50,000 at age four.” The state often spends millions – on youth offending, on jail – once it’s too late, she added.

Big House was more to Simms than a career launchpad. Simms learned to channel her anger and sadness into acting.

“For 90 minutes, whatever’s going on outside this building goes away,” she said. “That’s been the most powerful tool for me. I have a release.”

Main image: Maggie Norris looks on as care leavers practice for a production. Credit: The Big House

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