“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.
“Maitland’s vocal control in particular is quite staggering, bringing a coiled strength to the small auditorium.”
Often described as the sequel to ‘Fiddler On the Roof’, ‘Rags’, originally written by Joseph Stein (who did also write ‘Fiddler’) enjoyed only four days on Broadway in its 1987 debut. Regardless, it was nominated for five Tony awards that year. But, more baffling still, it has never been brought back to the stage, that is, until now.
Revised by David Thompson and directed by Bronagh Lagan, ‘Rags’ tells the story of Jewish immigrants making their way to America at the turn of the twentieth century. Among the boatloads of hopefuls is Rebecca (Carolyn Maitland), with her son David (as played by Jude Muir for this performance), who, without any family or a nickel to her name, is determined to succeed in this new promised land.
As with most sequels, ‘Rags’ has loosely the same narrative arc as its predecessor: A community of traditional Jews fights off the outside world on multiple fronts, be it via assimilation, persecution or modernisation. Certain familiar characters re-appear as well. Ben (Oisin Nolan-Power) for example, a nice but nerdy tailor seeks the affections of Bella (Martha Kirby) whose father, Avram (Dave Willetts) disapproves of the union. I mean, why not just call them Motel and Tzeitel and have done with it.
But ‘Rags’ does depart from ‘Fiddler’ in its sheer volume of historical content, including everything from the 1909 Shirtwaist strikes and the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire to the emergence of feminism, the rising popularity of Yiddish theatre and song writing, and culture clashes, not only between different ethnicities and religions, but also first and second-wave immigrants. In order to include all of this, every character symbolises a school of thought, be it capitalism or communism, traditionalism or modernisation. And this leaves little room for any of the characters to have any, well, character. The older generation – aunt, uncle and father – bring a little Yiddish flavour from the old country, but aside from that everyone is a bit bland.
The soundtrack (Charles Strouse/Stephen Schwartz) flits between a klezmer-ragtime fusion, and modern musical numbers. The former is accompanied by a swaggering Klezmer band wondering the stage, playing various bit-parts as they go. The small ensemble brings a tonne of humour and spirit to the production. Clarinettist Natasha Karp is a particular joy to watch, her constant facial expressions a kind of running commentary on the story’s goings-on.
The more modern numbers, however, are generally forgettable and feel mismatched with the themes of the plot.
The set (Gregor Donnelly), consisting of a wall of suitcases, and sparse furniture, provides an atmosphere of transition; of both hope and hardship. Whilst Rebecca, Bella and David have just arrived, the small apartment has been the home of multiple immigrant families before this one, and will no doubt go on to house many more after, and the set succeeds in keeping this feeling of flux throughout.
The cast themselves are gloriously talented, doing their best to inject colour and excitement to a story that drags on at least a half hour too long. Maitland’s vocal control in particular is quite staggering, bringing a coiled strength to the small auditorium.
But whilst ‘Rags’ was not intended as a direct sequel for ‘Fiddler’, it’s hard not to consider it as such and, as is often the case with sequels, it doesn’t stand up to comparison. Yes, there are a couple of catchy numbers, a couple of funny scenes, and a couple of moments of heartfelt reflection. But not enough on any count, and unfortunately this revival is less a story of rags to riches, and more rags to run-of-the-mill.