Trafalgar Studios 2, London – until 19 March 2016
Smart and authentic writing meets a riveting West End debut in Firebird at Trafalgar Studios. In his first venture to the downstairs studio at Hampstead Theatre, Ed Hall has found a remarkable first script from Phil Davies, and cast it with the explosive talent of just-out-of-ArtsEd Callie Cooke.
The anger, frustration and social comment which infuses the taut script for Firebird has the intelligence and verbatim texture of Mike Leigh’s early work, here rinsed in the soft Lancashire inflections of Victoria Wood.
We are in hideous territory: Wood and I were born five streets and three weeks apart, a tuppeny bus ride from Davies’ native Rochdale, then a mill-town praised by Pevsner for its Victorian gothic Town Hall and famed for the foundation of the CoOperative movement. Now it’s a sadder place synonymous with child abuse for the underage sex scandal which disgraced both the Asian Muslim community which turned a blind eye to it, and the police force which took so long to bring it to court.
Cooke’s immensely concentrated Tia is a fourteen-year-old anti-heroine so destructive, abandoned and emotionally hungry she believes a pimp’s bag of chips is an invitation to the warmth of human contact, something she clings to long after his gentle motives are disproved in the most hideous and violent ways imaginable. The economy in the writing is admirably brave: it’s almost a throwaway line when she says to the police ‘and then they all got their phones out’.
Economy extends to the casting. It’s a three hander and I was torn between wide-eyed admiration for Phaldut Sharma’s agility to play both the shiny-suited Mercedes-driving abuser and the investigating officer with such distilled truth – it’s a slightly obvious allusion to the idea that “all men are the same” in Tia’s eyes – and wishing the play had been peopled by a couple more characters for depth. If you ask, quite reasonably, why there was no foster-parent, social worker, teacher or doctor in whom Tia could have confided you expose a flaw not in the play, but in the system.
Hall likes to shock. The stained-mattress-ex-machina dropped from the rafters is effectively staccato but also gimmicky: the play doesn’t need such tricks to make its points. Tia’s school friend Katie is sensitively played by Tahirah Sharif oddly without a Lancashire accent and in a casting that could inadvertently suggest she’s part of the coterie of the rapists, although she identifies her mother as ‘Jamaican’. The character is less well drawn than the others, but the moment when she offers Tia a tea round her mum’s table and a sleepover is heart-wrenching in its simplicity and naivety that something so ‘normal’ should be absent from so many lives.
Clever stuff, well done. What more could you want?
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