Trafalgar Studios 2
22nd February 2016
It’s a tall order to find anything positive in the recent child exploitation scandal of Rochdale that provoked a national debate about the way vulnerable children were failed by authorities put in place to safeguard them, but Firebird offers a glimmer of hope, a phoenix if you will, in the ashes of the seemingly boundless brutality.
The play opens with the playful interaction of two drunk teenagers truanting from school. Callie Cooke is vulgar and mouthy as the adolescent Tia, bristling with attitude, the epitome of society’s perception of a problem child. She seems to revel in her dysfunctionality and the with the aid of some alcohol their childish games deteriorate into something more sinister. She and Katie; her starry-eyed companion, a “new girl from London” begin an accusatory match of “never have I ever,” and soon Tia is charging her friend with the ultimate shame of being a virgin. Tahirah Sharif is tough and worldly as Katie but cracks confronted with Tia’s wild oscillations between naive jesting and sneering cruelty. She retaliates by tipping Tia out of her wheelchair, soaks her in booze and storms off leaving her friend to reflect on her situation. Crumpled on the floor, Tia berates herself, foreshadowing the self-blame she metes out in order to make sense of the appalling way she’s persistently treated.
Jumping back into Tia’s past we find an altogether more cocky and arrogant child demanding chips from a man she meets in a local takeaway. Phaldut Sharma is effortlessly charming as AJ and his shiny suit and Mercedes are a palpable attraction to a girl unaccustomed to material comforts or even the most lukewarm of niceties. Their clunky conversation, full of misunderstandings and inane flattery is endearing and the chemistry of the actors almost makes us forget the disparity in age between the characters they’re playing. Eventually AJ asks for confirmation of Tia’s age and even though she is coy and deceptive, in this moment we see the flicker of a predator under the veneer of a concerned stranger.
We leap forward in time where on a filthy mattress covered in blood, Tia and her abuser argue as she desperately begs to be freed. Edward Hall’s direction of this confrontational subject matter is sensitive and detailed and we begin to grasp the complex symbiosis of abuser and victim. For anyone whoever watches the news in horror and thinks, “oh well that would never happen to me…” this scene clearly depicts how minimal acts of “kindness” directed towards someone in a desperate and defenseless position can make them compliant. Tia is taught to make herself culpable for everything and bargains away her self-worth in an effort to placate AJ and reignite the affection and attention he once showed her.
There is a dreadful inevitability about the plot, which is compounded by the stinging words of the overworked policeman who demands, “what did you think was going to happen?” The answer as Tia evinces in her confusion and frustration was that she didn’t know, she was a child and she had no point of reference to judge by. Multi-roling as another equally dislikeable character, Sharma shows us the harassed and ill-equipped service that has neither the ability or interest to deal with problem cases that bring up uncomfortable issues of race and community cohesion. His interrogation is as aggressive as it is ineffective and Tia flounders, terrified, unable to give a coherent personal statement making herself the subject of accusation. We snap back to the present day where Tia still in pieces alone on the floor tries to right her wheelchair. The struggle serves to draw a metaphor between the unwieldy police and social institutions designed to help, but that ultimately end up crushing those most vulnerable under the mechanics of bureaucracy.
Firebird deals with pertinent weighty issues of race, class and child exploitation, but the writing shines with Phil Davies’ dark humour. It is punchy and savage, it’s stark grimy set underscored with intrusive dubstep during the scene changes. See this play for the three performances of the small cast, who possess an unbridled and searing energy that shakes you to the core.