With recent (at the time of writing) remarks made by an actor on national television sparking further debate about racism and wokeness, The Canary and the Crow’s run at the Arcola Theatre is remarkably timely. To the best of my recollection, neither the words ‘racism’ or ‘wokeness’ are used in the play, and there’s something to be said for the central character, named only as The Bird (Daniel Ward) walking into a position of privilege, having secured a scholarship to a public school. I haven’t a clue how autobiographical this narrative is (or even if it is at all) but either way, it’s highly engaging and highly convincing.
With only four actors on stage it is hardly surprising that there’s a lot of exposition: it simply isn’t reasonable to portray an entire school community without the numbers. No matter – Ward’s rapport with the audience (facilitated by something of a warm-up act by Prez 96, also known as Nigel Taylor) having been quickly established, and maintained to the end, is a key strength here, as is the script, filled with powerful imagery and memorable stories. The fourth wall is repeatedly breached, though the vast majority of audience interaction is collective – as ever, one sits in the front row at one’s own risk.
The Bird ends up living a kind of dual life, where the well-intentioned but nonetheless posher public school pupils are – in certain respects – very different to the equally well-intentioned friends in London that he spent his primary school days with. But there are, The Bird tells the audience, some things that are pretty much the same across the board, particularly the inquisitiveness in both camps with regards to how the other half live.
The Bird’s personal perspectives for the most part has a maturity beyond his tender years, but there are occasional reminders of how skewed his thought processes can be: “Snipes is fifteen, but he is old […] He feels like he comes with a mortgage.”
The story is told in chronological order, going against what sometimes feels like a tide of newer plays that love to make things unnecessarily complicated by jumping around all over the place within a time frame of years or even decades. (The only times when events jumped out of sequence were marked with a most helpful ‘rewind’ or ‘fast forward’.) The script divides the play into ‘tracks’ rather than scenes, though whilst watching the play the announcement of another ‘lesson’ seemed more of a scene change than anything else.
“What are you doing here? Is this some kind of mistake? You don’t belong here.” The Bird senses that this is the kind of message being subliminally transmitted by well-heeled fellow pupils too outwardly polite to say explicitly to his face. There’s a lot for the young lad to consider: alongside the changes that are a natural process of growing up, if he’s moulded into the ways, styles and outlook on life as espoused by his classmates, does he effectively become a different person? What are the implications of this? I felt like I had more questions when I left the theatre than I did when I arrived.
Rachel Barnes and Laurie Jamieson play cellos, unlikely accompaniments to grime and hip-hop, but surprisingly it works very well. They also play about a dozen different characters between them, and are never afraid of putting in ad-libs of their own alongside those of Ward and Taylor. There’s a clear commitment to giving the audience a good time, even to the point of hamming up the mannerisms of school figureheads. “This is it. This is my art. I dare you try and tell me it’s not relevant,” Ward concludes. That’s a challenge I won’t be taking up, thanks to this thoughtful and energetic production.
Review by Chris Omaweng
This lyrical, semi-autobiographical piece from writer and performer Daniel Ward uses grime, hip hop and theatre to tell the story of the struggle between a new environment that doesn’t accept you and an old one that has no opportunity. Featuring original live music by Prez 96 and James Frewer, ‘The Canary and the Crow’ won the Brighton Fringe Award for Excellence at the 2019 Edinburgh Festival Fringe.
Daniel Ward – Writer and Performer
Prez 96 (Nigel Taylor) – Co-composer and Performer
James Frewer – Co-composer and Musical Director
Paul Smith – Director
Arcola Theatre and Middle Child
The Canary And The Crow
Written by Daniel Ward
Music by Prez 96 and James Frewer
Directed by Paul Smith
24 Ashwin Street
London E8 3DL