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 The Theatreguide.London Review

Three Birds
Bush Theatre Spring 2013

A family of children living without a parent try to hide that fact from the world, for fear of being taken into care and separated. It's been the subject of several Hollywood and made-for-TV films, so what does playwright Janice Okoh have to add that's new? 

The milieu, actually. In my experience most of those films either show nice middle-class white kids with loads of resources to fight the system with, or colourfully impoverished Appalachian trailer trash full of salt-of-the-earth grit. 

Okoh presents us with three inner-city black kids with barely enough mental and emotional resources to survive in ideal circumstances, much less the crisis they're in. And that change of setting may be enough to hold your interest. 

Sixteen-year-old Tiana struggles to make a home for younger brother Tionne and sister Tanika, largely through sharing her fantasies of the rich and comfortable life they will have someday.

Almost mute Tionne busies himself with mysterious experiments involving vodka, dead chickens and a garden sprayer, while Tanika develops a crush on the one teacher who shows any interest in her. 

I'm giving nothing away when I say that mother is permanently not present, though the exact nature of her absence is withheld as a shocking surprise, and other than that teacher, the children's only outside contact is mother's former drug dealer.

And so we watch these three children, barely equipped to function, fighting the inevitably losing battle to sustain the dream of a normal life they probably never had to begin with. 

There is a sad fascination in that picture but, as presented in this production transferred from Manchester's Royal Exchange Theatre, Okoh's play sometimes seems more like the notes for a play than the play itself. 

The playwright has worked out the characters, but not really what to do with them, and director Sarah Frankcom and her cast are hampered by this incompleteness. 

In the course of the play we learn more facts about the situation (like what became of mother), but not much happens. Apart from the two outsiders, who essentially run away, nobody grows, nobody changes, nobody learns, nobody rises or falls. 

Plot developments make a change in their situation imminent at the end of the play, but the children are essentially the same as they were at the start. 

Playing characters who are mentally damaged or limited is actually fairly easy – it is largely a matter of technical tricks and tics – and the adult actors playing the children – Michaela Coel, Jahvel Hall and Susan Wokoma – do make them believable and even touching, though they can't disguise their static nature. Lee Oakes and Claire Brown provide support in the underwritten roles of the outsiders. 

There is evident talent in what Janice Okoh has achieved in this play, but too much is left undone for it to be more than a promise that her next play may well be a real success.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review -  Three Birds - Bush Theatre 2013


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