Wednesday, 27 March 2013

Theatre review: Three Birds

Are Three Birds at the Bush worth one in the hand? Madani Younis' vastly improved second season concludes with Janice Okoh's Bruntwood Prize winner from 2011, in a co-production with Manchester's Royal exchange. A sort of South London version of Tusk Tusk, Okoh's play follows three young siblings left at home alone after their heroin-addicted mother disappears. The oldest, 16-year-old Tiana (Michaela Coel) is at college, hoping to become a beautician, and keeping her younger sister Tanika (Susan Wokoma) calm with stories of the fabulous life they'll lead when she makes it big. The middle child, selectively mute Tionne (Jahvel Hall,) is allegedly doing a GCSE project but never seems to go to school, spending all his time in his pyjamas doing increasingly odd experiments involving dead chickens and vast amounts of vodka. The siblings are determined to keep the fact that they're home alone from the authorities, convinced that Social Services will split them up in Care.

Three Birds paints its damaged family with a strong dose of dark humour throughout, from the sinister versions of cheesy jokes that provide one of the rare occasions when Tionne will speak, to the only remaining adult figures in the children's lives: Tanika is convinced that her primary school teacher Ms Jenkins (a beautifully saccharine turn from Claire Brown) will adopt her, like a real-life Matilda.

The only other adult they'll allow into the house is their mother's drug dealer, Dr Feelgood (Lee Oakes,) who alternates between an aggressive demand for the cash she owes him and he believes she's run away to avoid paying, and a twisted sort of fatherly concern for the younger kids. Sarah Frankcom's direction ably manages the delicate balancing act that the play's style demands, a serious subject of abandoned children told with an acidically funny touch. Okoh has a fine ear for dialogue which the young trio at the centre of the story snap out entertainingly, while still building an emotional connection.

Where Three Birds doesn't fare quite as well is in the story's big twist, which is easy to spot from a very early stage, meaning that I personally felt like the play spent a lot of time treading water while it waited to reveal something already apparent. But it's not enough to derail the play, which establishes Okoh as a promising playwright, and most excitingly as one who seems to have already found a distinctive voice of her own.

Three Birds by Janice Okoh is booking until the 20th of April at the Bush Theatre.

Running time: 1 hour 35 minutes straight through.

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