I very nearly left the theatre.
I would have thought streetwise and mouthy teenage girls like Tia (Callie Cooke) with their confident swagger and relentless sarcasm would be able to brush off people like AJ (Phaldut Sharma) with relative ease. After all, if they find it easy to tell their own friends to “[expletive] off”, how straightforward must it be for them to snap at people they have never met before?
Firebird skilfully explores the concept that even in their uncompromising aloofness teenage girls can still be lured into something really quite nasty by an older man with cash to splash. I was left unsure whether to admire or express disgust (or maybe a bit of both) at AJ’s patience and quiet determination even when Tia does indeed swear at him and tell him where to go. Both parties possessed a doggedness that left the audience looking on wondering quite what either side was trying to achieve. Both, I mused, ought to go into politics.
This is one of those new shows with a life-changing ‘critical incident’ (oh, there are so very many of them these days), but the critical incident here is particularly harrowing and horrific, to the point where, as I say, I very nearly left the theatre. What’s better or worse, depending on which way you look at it, is that it’s entirely convincing and plausible. Katie (Tahirah Sharif), Tia’s friend (or is she?) has some power to get Tia out of the mess she has found herself in, at least in the short-term, and there are snap decisions that must be made that require a maturity beyond these schoolgirls’ years.
Simon (also Phaldut Sharma), a police inspector, says to Tia’s face that he believes her story, but it’s clear that he’s one man in a police service that, as an institution, thinks that people like Tia are just crying rape and should go back to their Girl Guides Association meetings and girly sleepovers. The script is excellent, for the most part. Aside from Tia being implausibly fluently conversant in places (I appreciate there may be dramatic licence going on, however), it portrays the colloquialisms and thought patterns of the younger generation perfectly. There’s are moments of comic relief, for instance when a man believed to be approximately forty years of age is described by Tia as “well old”.
The staging, even in this studio space, matches the script in its quality, truly making me feel as though I were in whichever scene that the play had reached. Of worthy note was the real sense of foreboding and confinement in the custody suite of a police station, helped by some clever (if relatively simple) use of technology.
With such a hard-hitting narrative, Firebird makes for compelling viewing. It’s difficult not to squirm at the no-holds-barred depiction of what goes on in paedophile rings. By the end, however, the story feels somewhat incomplete. As I made my way back towards the London Underground, I couldn’t help but conclude that simply raising awareness of such a disgusting enterprise just isn’t sufficient.
What was pleasing to see, though, was a stark reminder to young and old – don’t tell your friends to “[expletive] off”. There might come a time when that friend is indispensable to your very survival.
And as I came out of the Underground at the other end, I realised perhaps this play does offer a potent suggestion after all – don’t rely on the authorities for support nearly as much as one another.
Some serious food for thought in an age of public service budget cuts. No, I didn’t ‘enjoy’ this production, but then I got the distinct impression I wasn’t supposed to.
Review by Chris Omaweng
Following a sold out run at Hampstead Theatre, Firebird transfers to Trafalgar Studios 2.
Invalid Displayed Gallery
Tia’s mouthy attitude and confident swagger hide a vulnerable teenager whose tough start in life dangerously draws her to AJ. Older, good-looking and charismatic, AJ shows her a kindness that she’s never known. Kindness that comes with a price…
Directed by Hampstead’s Artistic Director Edward Hall, Phil Davies’ debut play, is a searing new thriller about how the naivety of youth is open to exploitation.
Edward Hall has directed some of Hampstead’s biggest hits including the Olivier Award winning musical Sunny Afternoon, Chariots of Fire (both of which transferred to the West End) and Wonderland.
Firebird contains themes of an adult nature.
BOOK TICKETS FOR FIREBIRD
Tuesday 23rd February to Saturday 19th March 2016
Running Time: 1 hour & 15 minutes