Sherman Cymru & Royal Exchange Theatre
Much of Katherine Chandler's work (e.g. Before It Rains, Parallel Lines) deals with vulnerable young people severely let down by unfit parents and other unreliable adults. In Bird, one of the winners of the Bruntwood Prize in 2013, this theme intersects directly, if subtly, with the continuing scandal of organised child sexual exploitation.
The play starts as it means to go on: a fraught conversation between two women. One is barely adolescent, frail-looking, full of nervous energy, obviously needy, but with self-righteous aggression not far from the surface. The other is a little older, somewhat defensive and clearly reluctant to be there.
The younger woman is Ava, verging on sixteen years old and about to leave the care system. The other is Claire, who gave birth to Ava when she too was sixteen, and who felt compelled to have her put into care as a result of allegations involving Claire's partner’s reaction to Ava's burgeoning sexuality. It quickly becomes clear that Ava's wish to rebuild a happy family life may not be granted.
The play comprises a series of tense exchanges, which take place on Kenny Miller's minimal but infinitely adaptable set: two chairs, two ladders, grubby white tiles. Kevin Treacy's lighting transports us from bleak cliffsides to even bleaker parks and cafés, with only brief disco-dancing interludes relieving the tension built up via Simon Slater's portentous underscoring.
One of these features Al Wilson's Northern Soul classic "The Snake", the implicit suggestion being that Ava should pay close attention to the lyrics which tell an age-old tale of female gullibility and male untrustworthiness. It becomes increasingly clear, however, that Ava has few alternatives.
Bird is dominated by Georgia Henshaw’s achingly raw portrayal of the ostensibly fragile Ava: all child-woman confusion and sparrow-like jitteriness. One can readily recognise in her the girls from newspaper headlines from Rotherham, Oxford etc, who, desperate for affection and acceptance, put their trust in the wrong authority figures and find themselves in deep trouble.
Possible salvation comes in the shape of naïve (but not that naïve), local youth, Dan—Connor Allen, the only character over whom Ava finds herself able to exert any degree of control. More consciously manipulative is the older Lee—Guy Rhys—the wide-boy taxi-driver with a criminal record who, unlike Dan, seems immune to her sexual allure, but may well have other ideas in mind.
We realise fairly early on that Ava’s relationship with fellow care-home resident Tash contains elements of wish-fulfilment; Rosie Sheehy is heartbreaking as Ava’s sole support (although her accent seems to waver, distractingly). All of the characterisations are complex and ambiguous—none more so than Siwan Morris’s brittle, conflicted Claire, who, we are relieved to learn, seems to come close to holding out a lifeline.
Rachel O’Riordan’s energetic direction emphasises Ava’s vitality and child-like optimism, and Chandler’s script is full of clever avian references and metaphors; Ava yearns for the freedom to fly, but is also subject to the cruel natural impulses of those who surround her.
Bird is an emotionally draining seventy-five-minute journey through a difficult time in an impossible life. Still, the heroine is an irrepressible spirit who refuses to be a passive victim, and the author leaves us on a tentatively hopeful note.
Following the Cardiff run, Bird plays at the co-producing venue in Manchester. The tale may be tragically familiar, but it is told with great warmth and freshness, and Henshaw’s performance should not be missed.
Reviewer: Othniel Smith