Susan Wokoma as Tanika (left) and Michaela Cole as Tiana in THREE BIRDS by Janice Okoh (The Studio, Royal Exchange Theatre until 16 March). Photo - Jonathan Keenan
This spring the Royal Exchange and Bush theatre present a dark comic tale about a young family struggling to keep a shocking secret. Three Birds is an intimate kitchen sink drama with a twist, a gripping play which sucks you in from the start and keeps you laughing throughout.
The success of the production lies in the writing and the casting of Michaela Cole and Susan Wokoma and Tiana and Tanika respectively. The actresses are able to portray the writer’s and director’s vision of young girls trapped on the border of adulthood and wanting to remain children in a fantasy land.’
In a London Council flat we find Tiana, Tione and Tanika struggling to maintain normality whilst using the kitchen sink as a toilet and performing weird, highly unusual experiments in the bathroom. The writer wastes no time in setting up the story and we quickly realise that something horrible has happened to their mother and they are desperately trying to keep this from the dodgy Dr Philgood and Tanika’ teacher Ms Perkins.
The writer explores every social workers worst nightmare; young, vulnerable children struggling with no support to handle adult issues and problems with predictable disastrous consequences. The characters are used to explore the different levels of grief, and all three siblings struggle with the early stages of denial and anger. This denial causes the youngsters to eventually break down, as 16- year-old Tiana is unable to provide the family with nothing other than empty dreams and unattainable promises. Designer Louie Whitmore designs a starkly bare, non- descript council flat where the lack of possessions and personality contrast against the young family’s strong personalities and values of support and family togetherness. The audience is forced to study how children take on and become the ‘parent’ in some of their adult relationships in their lives.
Michaela Cole as Tiana (left) and Susan Wokoma as Tanika in THREE BIRDS by Janice Okoh (The Studio, Royal Exchange Theatre until 16 March). Photo - Jonathan Keenan
The success of the production lies in the writing and the casting of Michaela Cole and Susan Wokoma and Tiana and Tanika respectively. The actresses are able to portray the writer’s and director’s vision of young girls trapped on the border of adulthood and wanting to remain children in a fantasy land. I have seen lots of dramas written about young people by adults and the dialogue is never authentic enough and always seems out of touch. Janice Okoh’s latest drama won the 2011 Bruntwood Prize for Writing and the skill is clear as she presents realistic, comical dialogue for her young family preventing it from becoming an all-out horror / thriller production. Okoh has captured the essence of youth, innocence and a budding intelligence in the character of Taniika. It was clear that the actress had fun with the dialogue and Wokoma does a fantastic job as the talkative, precocious nine- year-old.
Claire Brown as Ms Jenkins and Jahvel Hall as Tionne in THREE BIRDS by Janice Okoh (The Studio, Royal Exchange Theatre until 16 March). Photo - Jonathan Keenan
Janice Okoh’s latest play differs from her earlier Egusi Soup in that the main characters are black British, yet their ethnicity is irrelevant to the storyline. Instead their homogenous British culture provides all the humour and tension within the play. The children are completely British; watching MTV cribs and loving Justin Beiber and One Direction as much as cheese strings and McDonalds. The tension comes when attention is brought to their race; does Miss Jerkins pity or favour Tanika because she is black? Is Dr Philgood’s paedophilic interest in Tiana worse because she’s black?
Info: Three Birds is at The Bush Theatre until April 20, 2013
Egusi Soup – review
Ellen Thomas – interview