Tuesday, February 23, 2016

'Firebird' at Trafalgar Studios, 22nd February 2016

Firebird is utterly brutal. Playwright Phil Davies, a native of Rochdale, unflinchingly examines the notorious sex trafficking gangs that exploited children in his hometown up until a couple of years ago. 

The story is a sprawling web of misery, blame and institutional incompetence - so Davies zeroes in on one girl: 14 year old Tia (Callie Cooke). She's a lonely foster child from a miserable estate, and finds herself groomed for sexual slavery by the manipulative AJ (Phaldut Sharma). 

The five scene play chronicles their meeting on a rainy night in a kebab shop, her repeated gang-rape at the hands of his friends and her frantic efforts to communicate what's happened to a sceptical police officer. Wrapped around this purestrain misery is the shaky friendship between Tia and fellow 14 year old Katie (Tahirah Sharp), who gradually understands why her new friend is such a "weirdo".

Cards on the table here: nobody who buys a ticket for Firebird is going to have a particularly nice night. This is hardcore misery and believe me, I know it when I see it. When I don't have my arts critic hat on, I work in law and I've participated in many trials studded with acts of unbelievable cruelty. I've watched testimony from traumatised victims of rape, seen stomach-churningly grisly crime scene phones and listened to a 999 call in which a woman gets beaten to death while screaming for help that never comes.

It's the kind of stuff that leaves a mark on you. Firebird does too. The  obvious counterpoint to that is that a trial is real life. Can any piece of theatre, no matter how good, really compare? But Firebird reverberates with journalistic verisimilitude: if you're familiar with the case you'll recognise the loosely fictionalised elements strewn throughout the script. If you're not knowledgeable about it you instinctively sense that you're watching a close re-enactment of something that happened. 

It felt real. 

Alarmingly so.

Davies' excellent writing accounts for a decent portion of this, displaying a hometown familiarity with cadence and dialect that gives the play credibility. The rest is primarily down the heartbreakingly raw Callie Cooke, who gives hands down the best performance I've seen in the last six months.

Her greatest accomplishment is maintaining Tia as an individual throughout the entierty of her ordeal. Crucially the character is both a) genuinely pretty funny and b) one of the most realistic teenage girls I've seen on stage lately. She's stroppy, smart-mouthed but, despite her protests and occasional drunkenness, is clearly a child. Cooke brings an innate charisma to the stage: a quality that makes the sustained scenes of violence, manipulation and police negligence hard to bear. She's, in a word, fantastic.

The visceral quality she brings has a startling effect on the audience. Director Edward Hall makes the smart decision to stage it in the round. This not only induces claustrophobia, but allows us to see the faces of the people sat opposite. I saw members of the audience openly sobbing, gritting their teeth with anger and, most commonly, turning their heads away, unable to continue watching.

For my part I felt a sense of miserable inevitability during the opening scenes, then straight-up gut-churning horror  followed by outright anger that this could be allowed to happen. It's the kind of play that makes you want to stand up from your seat and berate the characters.

This anger spirals across the perpetrators of Tia's nightmare; the Asian men bringing to life what was hitherto the racist daydream of teenage white slavery and taking their religious subjugation of women to its sadistically psychopathic conclusion. It extends to the authorities: a police force that really couldn't have given less of a shit about teenage girls' rape accusations (yawning through their interviews), on top of a background of defunded and demoralised local governance that appears to have written off these estates and those that live in them.

Finally the play reaches a kind of moral precipice, staring down in judgment at a society that would prefer to sweep unpleasantness like this under the rug. And so what if a few working class women's lives are destroyed in the process?

Firebird casts a daunting shadow over practically everything else on the London stage right now: a sturdy reminder of what theatre is capable of and what it can do that other storytelling media can't. If this were a TV drama: most would turn it off. If it were a film: most would quietly leave. 

But once you've sat down in the basement of Trafalgar Studio there's no escape and no changing channel - you're sitting through this nightmare to the bitter end. It's depressing as hell and will spoil your evening, but Firebird is absolutely must-see theatre.


Firebird is at Trafalgar Studios until 19 March. Tickets here.

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