Studio Theatre, Royal Exchange

While The Night Watch continues to enthral audiences in the Royal Exchange’s main theatre, down in the more intimate setting of The Studio, you’ll find Bird by Katherine Chandler, the winner of a judge’s award in the 2013 Bruntwood Prize Competition. Chandler is playwright in residence at Sherman Cymru Theatre and her play is a bleak examination of families and friendship.

Ava (Georgia Henshaw) has grown up in care, after being thrown out by her mother, Claire (Siwan Morris), mostly because she’s accused Claire’s partner of abuse. Now Ava lives in a children’s home somewhere in the backside of South Wales. Soon, she will be sixteen and sent out to fend for herself – but where is she supposed to go?

Essentially this is a series of short, punchy duologues – Ava confronting her mother, who has moved on and now has a two-year-old daughter to lavish all her attention on – Ava confiding in her best friend, the mysterious Tash (Rosie Sheehy); and there are some telling exchanges with two very different men – naïve teenager, Dan (Connor Allen), who confides that he might just be looking for something more than casual sex; and the older Lee (Guy Rhys), who is quite clearly grooming Ava, plying her with alcohol at every opportunity, in order to get her to bend to his will. Lee is always seen from Ava’s point of view – a scene where he cuts himself in order to get her to go along with him is particularly disturbing – which means that his manipulation is all the more sinister: he offers the care and attention so lacking elsewhere in her life, and his ulterior motives are opaque and shadowy.

The performances by the five strong cast are uniformly good and Henshaw is particularly adept at conveying her character’s inner conflict through her coiled, unresponsive body language. The edgy duologues are interspersed with more exuberant moments, such as the scene where Ava and Tash throw themselves around the stage, dancing in Northern Soul style. Parallels with birds constantly emerge though the writing – a caged bird occasionally let out to fly around a tiny room, the peregrine falcons nesting in the abandoned tenements nearby. They seem to represent the freedom that Ava yearns for but repeatedly fails to attain.

If there’s a criticism of this play, it’s that the signposting of issues is occasionally rather heavy-handed; it all feels a bit like we’re being hit over the head with them – and it’s clear early in the proceedings that anyone who was hoping for a happy ending is going to be disappointed. Still, it’s a hard-hitting piece that deserves your attention.  Bird is at the Studio Theatre until June 25th.

3.6 stars

Philip Caveney & Susan Singfield

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