Julian Eaves reviews Middle Child Theatre Company’s The Canary and the Crow now playing the Arcola Theatre, London.
The Canary and the Crow
Arcola Theatre, London
20th January 2020
Following up on, ‘SIX‘, here’s the next new musical theatre sensation to take the country by storm! A breath-taking debut by writer-performer-actor Daniel Ward, with musical grooves and sound-tracking from on-stage co-star DJ Prez 96 (aka, actor Nigel Taylor) and composer James Frewer; this is about as in-your-face as a gig-theatre themed event can get. Commissioned by Hull-based Middle Child Theatre Company, having packed out audiences at the Paines Plough venue on the Edinburgh Fringe last summer, it’s now bigger and broader and selling out fast at the Arcola Theatre. And it blows your mind.
You enter the auditorium with the party already in full swing: Ward and Taylor are holding forth, working the crowd up to a fury, waving their hands in the air, clapping and shouting aloud for all their worth, and getting the audience right on side. When we all settle down, Ward introduces the story: based on his own experiences of being a BAME actor at a white-dominated drama school, a talk given there by a visitor – one of the country’s leading black actors – sparked a thought process in his mind which in part has resulted in this theatre piece. He mixes direct address to the audience, rhyming rap, in-character recreation of scenes from childhood and spontaneous interaction with the crowd to explore important and powerful issues current in today’s multi-cultural but stressed and troubled world. Supported with smooth charm by Prez 96, there is additional musical and dramatic involvement from a multitude of roles played by Rachel Barnes and Laurie Jamieson, both of whom are outstanding in their many characters.
The fact that this quartet of magic-doers are able to conjure up a kaleidoscope of events, tones and moods is in large part down to the perfectly judged production: Ryan Harston keeps it all on the move – and always in harmony with Smith’s economical but razor-sharp direction, while Jessica Addinall lights each moment in its own special way, pin-pointing the ‘truth’ of every utterance or action (something very close to the heart of the author); Ed Clarke mixes the multiplicity of sounds to perfection, moving us from rasping cello tremolos to warm, bass-heavy grunge in a heartbeat and then on into incredible duets of contradictory art-forms. It’s a blast!
The story itself is full of surprises, set up not least by the crafty purloining of Aesop’s fable about the two birds in a competition to discover who had the best song. The genius of this mythological approach is to elevate the everyday school-day narrative into an altogether more universal realm. Ward turns back the clock to reveal his unusual selection – at the age of 10 – to attend a grammar school; this turned out to be the first step in society’s campaign to turn him into an ‘acceptable black’. Well, this time society met its match in Ward. No way was he going to kowtow to an agenda of someone else’s making (a lesson for others there, surely?). For us, as the audience, the drama is one we can – and should – identify with as well: Shakespeare once urged actors to ‘hold up the mirror to nature’ and urged that people should ‘to thine own self be true’. It’s good to see that in this land where so many seem more than ready to abandon their integrity or sense of identity, here is one voice that is working overtime to uphold those traditional ‘English’ values.
This run at the Arcola is short, but I suspect we shall we hearing and seeing a great deal more of this entertainment – and of all the others Ward has up his sleeve – before long. A star is born.
Until 8 February 2020