Innocence lost and adulthood questioned. Presented by Hampstead Downstairs. Closes October 24.
I find the one-act play form quite admirable. Often, it’s these shorter plays that run without interval that have the most to say.
Firebird, written by Phil Davies, is no exception to this rule. Broken up into just five scenes that begin and end in the same place, with a chilling backstory packed in the middle, the play looks at a troubled fourteen year old Tia (Callie Cooke) who meets and befriends an older man, (AJ, played by Phaldut Sharma) who claims to be a youth worker. We know from the minute he whips out his phone to take a picture of her – which he says he will send to a friend who hires models – that there is a cloud hanging over his true identity.
Davies’ play, his debut full-length work, is an incredible package. Featuring an almost ‘faux climax’ in act 4, the real climax arrives almost right at the end of the play, allowing for its final moments to truly leave its audience with bated breath. I almost feel that it is necessary to read the playscript itself after seeing the show, just to fully appreciate how compactly written it is, and the way in which the playwright has picked the absolute essentials when it comes to action and dialogue.
While the play itself shines through in its strength, I found Cooke’s performance as Tia quite frustrating. It’s clear that this is an exceptionally challenging role to play. However, what lacked from Cooke’s performance was not an understanding of the character, but the audience’s way in to her journey. I felt completely disconnected from her, perhaps from a feeling that Cooke was trying a little too hard in many respects – her vocal dial seemed to have been set at shouting for the entirety of the performance, her gaze fixed in an intense wide-eyed glaze, and like a baby to the pacifier, a thumb fixed in her mouth so often it was sometimes hard to make out her dialogue. I understood that this was a character who’d clearly been affected by a difficult upbringing, however I was missing a subtlety and vulnerability that would’ve allowed me to connect more with her, as well as the delicacy to allow me to see how she had been changed by the horrific ordeal she encounters.
Despite my lack of favour for the lead performance, I couldn’t help but be moved by the content of the play and the shining strength of the writing. I would very much like to see this play picked up and performed again elsewhere, as a challenge to both actors and audiences. Due to my viewing of the play as being on different levels in terms of production and script, I’ll have to break up my ratings into those two categories:
Production: 3 out of 5 ***
Script: 5 out of 5 *****