Every now and then, we at the Ginger Wig like to walk into something completely blind, with no prior knowledge of content. Firebird, downstairs at the Hampstead Theatre, was one of these occasions. And boy, were we in for a shock!
Phil Davies’ debut full-length play was an absolute fireball to the system. We certainly weren’t expecting such a powerful, moving and downright harrowing play, but that is exactly what we got.
It is based on the appalling case of nine men who ran a child sexual exploitation ring in Rochdale. The story follows Tia who is wheelchair bound from a broken leg. We first meet her struggling to engage properly with another girl on a hill in Rochdale. We then encounter her in a kebab shop trying to get some free chips. Here she meets AJ, who at first, seems like your average chatty bloke in a chip shop. As they continue to talk he announces that he is a ‘youth worker’. It turns out that he is grooming her and through manipulation and alcohol, entraps her. The writing of this piece was terrific, not revealing too much too quickly and sculpting extremely believable characters, particularly the protagonist. Tia struggles with her lack of self worth because of her past. Both the circumstances in which she was born, fostered by a ‘fat bitch’ at age three, and then becoming exploited and struggling with a sort of Stockholm syndrome in relation to the man AJ, contribute to her wild character.
An absolutely phenomenal performance was delivered by Callie Cooke in her first professional stage appearance delivering a raw and charged example of the kind of girl that was targeted. She was supported by Phaldut Sharma, playing the charming then despicable AJ and then the police officer Simon. He could have been two different actors, the transformation between characters was that good. Tahirah Sharif, played Tia’s friend Katie, having an equivalent presence to Callie’s loose canon.
Staged simply with the audience on four sides, scenes were interspersed with loud dubstep, creating a mood of recklessness and abandon, mirroring Tia’s frequent recourse to booze to block her pain. Booze, cigarettes and gifts were often employed by the men as a way to lure girls into their trap.
Finally we should commend the actors for the way they responded to a wheelchair malfunction. Unable to reopen the wheelchair, the actors stayed in character trying to sort it out, when eventually a stage manager came on to help. The actors left the stage when a second stage manager came on to resolve the problem. She was helped by a member of the audience. At this point, some members of the audience broke into giggles. The actors, Callie and Tahirah, however, continued the piece, as if nothing had happened, showing a professionalism and experience that defied their ages.
Shocking and real, this piece presented one of the most disgusting tales of organised crime from the last decade. Powerful writing from debutant author Phil Davies and a star turn performance from Callie Cooke. Definitely look out for this lot! Go see the Firebird, it’ll make you squirm, but hey, that’s the best kind of theatre!
Dramatic highlight of the play – The slow but daunting realisation of the content of this piece, smashed home by the falling mattress and blood covered Tia.