Pros: Despite being a tragic tale of child abuse, the work is laced with moments of good humour
Cons: The seating can be a little cramped, but this is nit-picking.
This hard-hitting production is a bold reminder of the mighty role theatre can play in giving a voice to the most vulnerable in society. Over the course of 75 minutes, it catapults the audience out of their comfort zone, bombarding them with several home truths about our collective failings, as a society, to shield many of our young people from the harm of others, and themselves.
Written by Phil Davies, Firebird is a powerful response to nationwide cases of child sexual exploitation throughout Britain, including those in Davies’ hometown of Rochdale. The play began its life last year as part of the Hampstead Downstairs season of new writing, where it was quickly picked up by The Children’s Society who recognised its power in highlighting the brutal reality that child victims of this crime face.
Callie Cooke plays fourteen year old Tia, a young girl whose tough start in life draws her to the older, good-looking and charismatic AJ (Phaldut Sharma). She meets him in a kebab shop, in Rochdale, where she unsuccessfully tries to scrounge a free bag of chips from the counter staff. AJ comes to her rescue and, chips and cheese in hand, she slowly falls victim to his predatory kindness. He begins to groom Tia, telling her he is a youth worker and offering gifts in a scene that – as an adult in-the-know – becomes increasingly uncomfortable to watch and which is the impetus for a series of disturbing events.
Played in-the-round in Trafalgar’s intimate Studio 2, this three hander is sensitively directed by Edward Hall. Hampstead Downstairs’ ethos for new writing, which sees writers undergo a rigorous rehearsal process with the director and actors, is just the right approach for something of this ilk: quite rightly, there is a sense that Firebird is no rushed job and the entire team meet their responsibilities in covering this important issue with care.
Cooke is exceptional in her creation of Tia, who despite her mouthy attitude and confident swagger, is difficult not to like. Delivering a beautifully layered portrayal, her performance is painfully believable and well balanced. The details of character are all present, including a tick and stammer, all symptoms of her fractured self. There are moments of real intensity, when the audience is left wondering how Cooke will survive, let alone Tia. Sharma as AJ and Tahirah Sharif as Tia’s friend Katie, both give engaging interpretations, helping to create a strong and suitably paced ensemble: the work is perfectly cast.
Throughout Firebird’s run, Parliament will be debating The Policing and Criminal Justice Bill. This vital legislation has the potential to increase the ability to tackle child sexual exploitation and provide children and young people who are at risk, or have been victims of crime, with more protection. With the play aptly running next the Houses of Parliament, where the bill will be debated, the work is thoroughly current and well situated. It is nice to imagine some of those involved in the debate will take the time to see it; this is a piece of work that anybody who is responsible for the safety and wellbeing of our young citizens should see (that is all of us by the way).
Author: Phil Davies
Director: Edward Hall
Producer: Tim Johanson & Hampstead Theatre Productions in association with The Children’s
Designer: Polly Sullivan
Lighting Designer: Tom Nickson
Sound Designer: John Leonard
Box office: 0844 871 7632
Booking Link: www.atgtickets.com/venues/trafalgar-studios
Booking Until: Saturday 19th March 2016