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Burning Bird

John Donnelly
Synergy Theatre Project
Unicorn Theatre

Burning Bird

Synergy is a company that works largely in prisons and with ex-prisoners but this play, which includes some ex-prisoners in its cast, was commissioned from John Donnelly to tour schools before playing these performances at the Unicorn.

The target audience of 13+ and the tour conditions have clearly shaped the show and its presentation. Designer Katy McPhee has used three isolated flats; one incorporating a door which, when used as a shop, is accompanied by "ching" noises from the cast, and the simplest furniture. Donnelly has opened the play with an explanation of the setting, the characters and those playing them and given it a format in which a narrated story breaks into acted episodes with occasional interjections of “he said” and “she said”.

It presents us with a day in the life of Daisy, a likeable teenager who is getting a bit fed up with rules and regulations and people who plan her life for her. However she seems to have no real aims or aspirations of her own, she lives from minute to minute.

It is Daisy’s fifteenth birthday. She’s not very pleased with the document folder her mother has bought, has an altercation with a Pakistani shopkeeper who won’t give her a couple of pence credit, wears earrings which are against school regulations and is found out by the headmaster.

Not a good start but things improve when she rediscovers a skill at origami and makes a red paper crane. She decides to give this to her father and, with her best friend Tyrone, tracks him down with his girlfriend. That doesn’t go too well, and when she accepts an invitation to go for a drive with an older, car-mad acquaintance, she gets caught up in looting and violence and some sexual harassment.

Simone James makes a lively Amy and youngsters that age will easily identify with her rebellious attitude, and probably find her South London, Caribbean-tinged accent much easier to follow than my older generation does. Valentine Olukoga’s more responsible Tyrone will also be a hit with youngsters.

Anil Kumar as the shopkeeper and the rest of the cast have to create more instant characters. Playing less than an hour there is not much time for context and the London riots, which form the play's background, are represented mainly as a video of burning buildings.

As a play, I found it disappointing both in its lack of depth and its form. There are circumstances when a narrated framework is appropriate but here seemed unnecessary, though perhaps it did help a kind of Brechtian distancing.

What it offers is a series of situations that provide opportunities for classroom discussion of where Daisy could have had better judgement, whether responding to the freedom of the moment or to peer pressure. This seems a starting point for a discussion of behaviour and ethics rather than a satisfying piece of theatre.

Reviewer: Howard Loxton