Rosie Sheehy

Bird

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10/06/16

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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Chicken

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13/08/15

Roundabout@Summerhall, Edinburgh

As we queue to go in to Chicken, the guy on the door gives us a strange warning. ‘If you’re allergic to straw or chicken feathers, don’t sit in the front row,’ he says. As it happens, we’re not, but this must count as a first, even for the Fringe.

Set in a near future dystopia on the Eve of ‘the separation’ – when East Anglia declares it’s independence from the rest of great Britain – the play is an examination of folklore, superstition and ‘Nationalism.’ Emily (Rosie Sheehy) works at a Tesco store, but she has a reputation for not speaking much, preferring instead to sing traditional folk songs and visit the places where witches used to be ‘swum.’ Her father, Harry (Benjamin Dilloway) and Mother, Lorraine (Josephine Butler) both work at a nearby chicken farm (hence the straw and feathers strewn liberally around the stage). Into this setting comes a ‘returner’, Layla (Beth Cooke), who having tried her luck in London has come back to her home town and is eager to reconnect with old crush, Harry. But he’s been dehumanised by his years of organising the slaughter of chickens on a massive scale. Chickens (along with bicycles) are now East Anglia’s biggest export. Meanwhile, Emily seems to be planning something very strange indeed…

The play is beautifully acted by all the cast, but we were somewhat distracted by a noisy fan that blew a stream of cool air into the theatre, making much of the dialogue hard to follow. It was happily dispensed with for the final third, which helped enormously; but I have to admit I found it hard to swallow the play’s conclusion or to feel at all terrorised by the prospect of marauding chickens attacking a family home.

This is a decent play with an intriguing premise. Just make sure you sit well away from that pesky wind machine!

3.8 stars

Philip Caveney