Saturday, 25 June 2016

Bird – Royal Exchange (Studio), Manchester

 [seen 21/06/16]

Katherine Chandler’s Bruntwood'13 play, Bird, feels like a useful companion piece to several shows which opened subsequent to its winning that award. Staged now, in a co-production with Cardiff’s Sherman Theatre, it feels – in disparate ways – like a companion piece to Leo Butler’s Boy, an individual, feminine mirror-image of Ali McDowall’s Pomona, as well as being the “difficult second album” follow-up to Iphigenia in Splott. All these comparisons are desperately unfair.

This is a well-written play given a good, theatrical, touring/studio presentation. Yes, there are elements of the text which feel a bit like writing-competion writing, and there are small aspects of Rachel O’Riordan’s production which veer a teeny bit close to feeling like “sticking in a bit of ‘physical theatre-lite’ because you should”, but anyone can find things to quibble about. Ultimately the production is incredibly effective, the script desolate and moving.

The piece is a fractured assemblage of fragments of scenes from the life of Ava (Georgia Henshaw) a young woman who – when we meet her – is turning sixteen and leaving the social care home in which she’s been living. We see her talking to her estranged mother, Claire (Siwan Morris), some random young man in a park (Dan – Connor Allen), her friend Tash (Rosie Sheehy), and an older cab driver (?) called Lee (Guy Rhys).

[plot spoilers from here on]

We quickly discern from her conversation with her mum that the reason she’s no longer living at home, and the reason she was taken into social care, is that something went badly, badly wrong at home. Little hints and words crop up enough for us to first suspect and then know that it’s sexual abuse by her step-father. A real difficulty here is that for a long while the mother is in denial. Viciously so. So much so, that, in the absence of any actual evidence, we don’t have any information at all. After all, it’s not a matter of our privileging the man’s version of events, he’s not in the play at all. This is simply one woman’s version of events against another’s. I mean, I think a left-liberal audience well-versed in the prevailing mood of Twitter regarding victim-blaming will automatically instinctively side with the daughter’s version of events from the get go. And, ultimately, her mother also comes round to accepting her accusation and leaves the boyfriend in question. And I don’t suppose it would be remotely helpful of anyone to write a play in which someone alleges sexual abuse and turns out to be lying, but, my God, Siwan Morris’s Claire (Ava’s mother) is so angry that you honestly don’t know where to put yourself.

The way that other scenes play out, and gradually tie together (or don’t quite) is highly accomplished. Although – again uncomfortably – there’s something in our role as audience of the forensic psychologist, piecing together aspects of behaviour, and ultimately sitting in judgement over what this story is and what it means. I suppose that’s often an audience’s job, but in this case, I kind of wish there hadn’t been a scintilla of floaty imprecision. On the other hand, not being shown the evidence does save us from the awfulness of staged attempts to portray child sex abuse.

The casting is admirably diverse, although the way it breaks down does – I’m sure coincidentally – make all the women – the victims – white; and both men – abusers – mixed race, couple this with the fact that the show is playing here in Manchester only 17 minutes on the train from Rochdale, and one does briefly wonder if that implication couldn’t have been avoided. But I’m nit-picking (albeit important ones that can’t be let slide).

In the main, this is a very well-constructed fragile piece that captures brilliantly the effects of abuse, and the sheer horror of broken trust it causes, set against the backdrop of a pitiful and pitiless social system which lacks both compassion and moral authority. This is the worst of all possible worlds, and frankly, the fact it is a daily reality for thousands should demand immediate political attention

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