“fresh, engaging and painfully relevant, and a startlingly accomplished debut”
Having already won the crowds at Edinburgh Fringe, The Canary and the Crow, directed by Paul Smith, comes to the Arcola to try the slightly more implacable audiences of London.
Writer Daniel Ward begins by addressing the audience directly, explaining the play’s genesis: A well-known black actor came to Ward’s drama school and asked all BAME students, “What is it like being black at drama school?” And by way of answering that question and its wider implication – what is it like being black in a society that is predominantly white – he has written The Canary and the Crow. Beginning his story as an eleven-year old accepting a scholarship to a fancy private school, Ward plays both his younger self (the Bird) and his narrating self, giving the story a necessary duality – the younger self experiencing this new and privileged world for the first time, and the present self placing this experience into a wider understanding of society.
Ward is aided in his story-telling by Nigel Taylor, Laurie Jamieson and Rachel Barnes. Taylor, initially the audience hype man and DJ, doubles up as Ward’s teenage friend from home, paralleling Ward’s experiences as someone who was not given the same opportunity. Jamieson and Barnes cover all manner of ‘rah’ characters from Ward’s private school, as well as providing cello, keyboard and vocals.
There’s pretty much no set to speak of. Instead, Ward moves about centre stage, encircled (or caged in) by Taylor, Jamieson and Barnes, who each take their turns to join him, thereafter returning to their onlooker’s spot.
There’s a bit of a disconnect between the production choices and the writing itself. The script is full of shade and nuance, dealing with difficult and complicated problems of belonging and identity, as well as economic and cultural advantage, making arguments such as, “ambition without opportunity is what kills people.”
But the production wants to simplify the story. Granted, Jamieson and Barnes provide plenty of comic relief in their depiction of toff pupils and uptight teachers. But in doing so, they mar these characters’ ominous implications. Similarly, the soundtrack (Prez 96 and James Frewer), a mash-up of grime and classical music, doesn’t quite reach the heights of dissonance and discord that it might. It’s as though Ward couldn’t decide who his audience should be. As gig theatre, this feels like something for teenagers, and in that capacity, it succeeds. But the story holds greater possibilities for a more sophisticated production, maybe something that gives room for those moments of suffocating tension or heart-breaking tenderness that are somewhat lost in this production.
Regardless, The Canary and The Crow is fresh, engaging and painfully relevant, and a startlingly accomplished debut. I look forward to seeing what Ward comes up with next.
“a wonderful display of talented performances with a script not quite up to scratch”
A tragedy doesn’t just befall the victim in the middle, it happens to so many people. One Under explores the effects of loss, ownership of grief, and the sometimes-bizarre ways we deal with it, whether we knew the person or not.
Sonny (Reece Pantry), a good-natured and well-loved young man full of potential, jumps in front of a train. His mother (Shenagh Govan) and sister (Evlyne Oyedokun) are left to manage their understandable grief. Train driver Cyrus (Stanley J. Browne) finds himself incapable of moving past the incident, and takes on the mystery of Sonny’s suicide, insistent that the story is more complicated than it might seem. We’re also privy to Sonny’s last day before his death, in which he decides to anoint himself the guardian angel of Christine (Clare-Louise English), a complete stranger.
The story works best when we’re unsure of how it will all piece together. Dialogue is playful and snappy; various relationships are displayed organically, painting a true-to-life image. But as soon as we reach an attempt at clarity- I’d say about an hour in- it all starts to drag a little. Each plotline is too complex to meet any other with any kind of harmony, as though writer Winsome Pinnock had lots of ideas, but no ending in mind.
The first ten minutes are also distractingly confusing, as Govan plays both a jaded fellow train driver trying to down-play Sonny’s death, and, in the following scene, his grieving mother. It’s unclear for too long that these are two different people. I’m sure casting director Sarah Hughes was working to a budget, but maybe next time splash out and get someone to step in for the first role. That being said, Hughes has done a splendid job otherwise. Govan as the mother perfectly balances force and affection; her relationships with both her children seem well-worn and honest. Pantry is spectacular, showing the full range of someone on the brink. English, too, expresses incredible nuance, full of kindness whilst distrustful of others’ good nature.
The scenery (Amelia Jane Hankin), though very pretty, doesn’t work. Two free-standing wooden shelves bow over the stage, carefully curated with plants and artfully stacked books. Scenes come and go in various locations, and I’m waiting for the backdrop to make sense. It’s possible it suits a scene in a hotel, or maybe Sonny’s flat, but the story takes place in a bunch of different places, so it really doesn’t make sense even if it were either of those, and it’s unclear either way.
The main trouble, though, is that within this one play, Pinnock has enough material for a series, following various characters, each with their own story, each suffering in their own private way. But in attempting to squeeze it in to one plot under two hours, she’s lost the thread. I would love to see this story properly unpacked, but for now, One Under, as directed by Amit Sharma, is a wonderful display of talented performances with a script not quite up to scratch.