Where Do Little Birds Go?

Camilla Whitehill

No Boundaries Theatre

Little Man Coffee Company, Cardiff

From 15 July 2017 to 16 July 2017

Review by Othniel Smith

Having enjoyed successful runs on both the Edinburgh and London fringes in recent years, Camilla Whitehill’s debut one-woman play now has its Welsh première as part of the Cardiff Fringe Theatre Festival, a week-long series of mostly small-scale performances taking place largely in non-traditional venues. In this case, it is the downstairs vault of a city-centre coffee-bar.

Where Do Little Birds Go is set in 1960s London, in that familiar space where West End glamour meets East End gangsterism. As we enter the performance area, we find ourselves already in the presence of our twenty-something heroine, Lucy Fuller, who, dressed in classy, black underwear, is doing her make-up at a cluttered dressing-table.

The introductory soundtrack comprises songs of yearning—“Bobby’s Girl”, “Don’t Play That Song (You Lied)”—setting up a mood of doomed hopefulness even before Kate Elis commences Lucy’s tale. She tells us of running away from an unhappy home (Welsh, in this production) at the age of 17, dumping her violent boyfriend and turning up on the doorstep of her Uncle Keith, desperate for somewhere to stay.

She is given a warm welcome, becomes a barmaid, then a nightclub hostess and dreams about emulating her heroine Barbara Windsor (the play’s title is taken from a song which she performed in Lionel Bart’s Fings Ain’t Wot They Used T‘be) and becoming a singer—Elis displays a fine singing voice. She finds herself in the orbit of the Kray Twins, but remains wary of them.

Inevitably, however, things go badly wrong and financial necessity sees her going somewhat beyond the call of duty with her nightclub patrons.

It is at this point where historical fact comes into play. It is known that Krays associate Frank Mitchell (“The Mad Axeman”), escaped from prison in December 1966 and, hidden in a small flat, was given access to a young woman, of whom Lucy is a renamed and fictionalised version.

The core of the story is this brief, one-sided relationship, with Elis compelling as the conflicted Lucy, conveying both numb horror at the traumatic and only notionally consensual sexual encounters with the thuggish but childlike Mitchell, and pity, as his eventual fate becomes clear to everyone but him.

Director Luke Hereford makes excellent use not only of Elis’s physicality, but also of the tiny space, which seats no more than two dozen; we feel almost as trapped as Lucy. Sound designer Josh Bowles is also to be commended, both for his replication of a vintage record-player and his arrangements of the contemporaneous songs of which Elis treats us to heartbroken snatches.

Both author and company bring freshness to a tale which has been told countless times, but is constantly topical, even managing to give us a hint of female empowerment. This is a production which deserves a bigger stage.