The Canary and the Crow
Reviewed – 20th January 2020
“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.
Reviewed by Miriam Sallon
Photography by The Other Richard
The Canary and the Crow
Arcola Theatre until 8th February
Previously reviewed at this venue: