Arcola Theatre, London – until 8 February 2020
Founded in 2011 Middle Child has a bold vision for the future of theatre, and it is focused on revolutionising theatre audiences. How can you change the world with theatre, if only a small, privileged section of that world is watching it? This is an ambition that all theatres should embrace, to avoid getting stuck on the slow relentless path to irrelevance. Daniel Ward’s The Canary and The Crow fits perfectly with this vision of an audience revolution, in fact, Paul Smith’s direction has no doubt helped this beautifully written piece flourish into the dynamic and passionate show I had the great privilege to see last night.
The fact it took Ward four years to find someone who would take on this show speaks volumes about the need for diversification within the ranks of theatrical gatekeepers. Although it may have taken a long time, I for one, am glad that The Canary and The Crow has found its home with Middle Child, it is a perfect fit.
Even though last night was the press night for its Arcola run, I still feel like I’m late to the party. The Canary and the Crow has enjoyed much acclaim since it was first workshopped in Hull back in 2018. Now in 2020 I finally get to experience this show, and it is well worth the wait. This semi-autobiographical piece tells the story of a boy who gets a scholarship to a posh boys’ school, a place where fitting in comes at a cost. Is it a price worth paying for the access to opportunities he would otherwise never have had?
Two very different worlds clash, and he finds himself needing to balance his two identities, and it is this duality that is vividly brought to life throughout the play. Fables mix with the contemporary, while grime and cellos both harmonise and do battle. A canary sings beautifully about nothing, while a crow caws a more meaningful song. The timeless elements help the piece fly, while the beautifully observed details root this story in the now, giving it a strong sense of urgency. There is an element of the battle-cry to this story, as Ward drills home the dangers of selling ambition to those with no opportunities. He reminds us that in a city like London, your life can be so different depending on where you live on a bus route.
The music, co-created by Prez 96 and James Frewer mixes the dynamism and verbal sharpness of grime, with classical elements reminiscent of pieces like Peter and the Wolf, with cellos and keyboards punctuating character and movement. This is a fresh and evocative soundtrack, that infused me with an electric buzz of energy, and fits so perfectly with the story being told. Story and music are so intertwined, it is hard to imagine one, without the other.
Daniel Ward brings passion and openness to the lead role, breaking the fourth wall with a disarming honesty that engages the audience. ‘The Canary and the Crow’ is not a passive theatrical experience. There is a physicality to it that got under my skin, making me want to move even as I was taking in the emotional impact of the show. This is exactly what gig theatre should do, bringing elements of both worlds together in a way that both transforms and energises.
Rachel Barnes and Laurie Jamieson are brilliant as both musicians and performers, bringing to life the white privileged world of the school through the different characters they inhabit. Barnes also brings a wonderful sense of entitlement to the eponymous Canary, who is convinced that all should love the sound of her song. Nigel Taylor AKA Prez 96 shines as Snipes, giving a visceral performance that provides the counterpoint to our protagonist’s new life. It is through the change in their relationship, that the sense of an identity crisis grows.
The subject matter could make for a gruelling night out, but Ward has a gift for the comic. This show is full of humour and warmth, I defy you not to care about the experiences he shares, the challenging reality of being trained to be the “acceptable” face of Black Britain and how that impacts his own sense of identify and worth. This feels all the more important today, as only last week a certain posh white actor was gifted a huge platform on which to make ignorant and inflammatory statements about race in the UK. Ward has had to work for years to get his considered and intelligent voice heard, to share his own experience with compassion and hope. While the Arcola Theatre may not provide the sizeable audience TV does, they are bringing us a show that has the power to move and inspire those audiences lucky enough to see it.
‘The Canary and the Crow’ runs at the Arcola Theatre until 8th February. As you can probably tell, I think everyone should go and see it.