Three Birds

Janice Okoh
Royal Exchange, Manchester
The Bush, Shepherd's Bush

Susan Wokoma as Tanika, Michaela Coel as Tiana and Jahvel Hall as Tionne Credit: Jonathan Keenan
Lee Oakes as Dr Feelgood Credit: Jonathan Keenan
Claire Brown as Ms Jenkins and Jahvel Hall as Tionne Credit: Jonathan Keenan

In-Yer-Face Theatre might be a child of the 1990s that never grew up, but this 100-minute import from The Royal Exchange, Manchester, written by Janice Okoh and directed by Sarah Frankcom, is a kind of lighter version, perhaps closest to the Philip Ridley variety of the genre.

That means that viewers are asked to sit through a lot of hard-to-figure angst, subsequently explained by not-quite-seen scenes that would not be out of place in an XXX-rated horror movie.

As becomes apparent, the tone is ironic, as three London children who have apparently been deserted by their mother, a junkie and possibly prostitute it is implied, try to do the best they can without any proper adult guidance.

As the youngest Tanika, adult actress Susan Wokoma goes for wide-eyed innocence with great confidence and skill, though it takes a long time to realise that she is still only 9 rather than a slow teenager.

Her sister Tiana played by Michaela Coel is 16 and tells a good fantasy when the going gets tough, while middle child Jahvel Hall's Tionne is withdrawn and strange.

Since all interchangeably referred to each other as "Tee", there is great scope for confusion and their behaviour is continually odd and extreme.

Their pastimes are unusual too, generally involving rituals requiring recently dead animals and unlikely bargains purchased from Amazon.

None of this makes much sense but sanity is almost introduced in the unlikely form of Dr Feelgood, Lee Oakes playing a fixer / dealer / pervert, who makes periodic appearances to terrorise the kids and repossess their electrical goods.

The real world is represented by Claire Brown playing Tanika's Scottish schoolteacher Ms Jenkins, whose heart is in the right place although she relies on a glove puppet rather than sounder methods when it comes to calming troubled children.

It takes well over an hour for anything to make much sense. Then, one gradually realises that there has been a link deliberately hidden from the narrative, which explains a great deal.

Even then, Janice Okoh cannot find a resolution to a play that badly needs one. What we are left with is a single trick that justifies much of the mystery but will repulse some viewers and may not inject enough interest for others.

In the final reckoning, Three Birds is the kind of play that has hidden depths, which can only be understood on calm contemplation after leaving the auditorium. This can make it challenging to watch but far more worthwhile when considered with a suitable degree of hindsight.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher

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