A raw, energetic and emotional piece of gig theatre; The Canary and the Crow is a definitive, contemporary production that comes for your head and your heart.
Daniel Ward’s semi-autobiographical narrative tells the story of one boy trying to live in two worlds that coexist, but cannot be cohabited. Bird (Ward) is black, he’s from a single parent family from the ends in South London, and when a letter comes through the door he’s thrust into the elite (and elitist), wealthy and majority white world of a top private school that has very specific views on all of the previous. Here, he has to learn double the amount that his fellow pupils do. And the audience watches this 11 year old learn things that he shouldn’t have to; painful lessons that go beyond the classroom to a world that is still, and never has been, built equal.
“A raw, energetic and emotional piece of gig theatre”
This is a production that is constantly moving. The four actors onstage are in perpetual motion, rushing between acting and creating the play’s distinctive soundtrack, woven through by the fable of the Canary and the Crow which provides a poetic and parabolic context to Bird’s experiences, and a sense that his experiences are bigger than he is. It’s a rush of sound and movement, thoughts, feelings and experiences that burst onto the stage like a tidal wave. While this is, at times, a bit clunky – as the narrative only touches on each topic briefly before barrelling on – this tempo maintains the energy and the emotion of the piece. The performance is unaffectedly funny, it’s frustrating, but ultimately it’s heartbreaking to watch Bird change through the micro-aggressions, blatant aggressions and the heavy choices he has to make to occupy this space.
The performance relies on the ability of Daniel Ward to command a room, which he does with innate charm. If I have any critique, it was that I wanted to see a more pronounced and physicalised age difference between the ‘Bird’ of now and 11-year-old Bird. Ward is supported by an incredibly talented cast, including his friend Snipes (Nigel Taylor/Prez 96) who is older, harder and comes with buckets of natural charisma – I would watch a spin off series about him. Snipes also doubles up as the play’s energy-bringing hype-man; a difficult job with a Monday evening crowd, but one he pulled off with ease. Alongside these two are the classical-instrument-wielding and hilarious Laurie Jamieson and angelic-voiced Rachel Barnes who represent the private school world. The white characters are caricatures, played for laughs and toe-curling awkwardness, which runs the risk of playing to (what Middle Child call) Theatre Audience™ by giving them something over-exaggerated to laugh at instead of facing the reality that normal people can espouse racist beliefs. However, the performance’s end scenes save it from that by showing a teacher and friend who think they are being helpful, but are just twisting the knife further.
Bird is told by a hilariously clown-ish head of year that it is a ‘privilege’ to be at this school – and here, we get to see what ‘privilege’ looks like, and what it’s constructed against. These two different and very separate worlds, though along the same bus route, collide disharmoniously, and in a way that unambiguously (through parks with grass versus multiple football pitches, ‘innit’ versus Queen’s English and some horrifically posh accents and “bright minds of your generation” versus being unable to find a job) highlights the blatant inequalities in our society – as Bird tells the audiences, people living on the same bus route can have a life expectancy that differs by five years.
“It’s the vibrant pulse of the contemporary theatre scene”
This disharmony is perfectly encapsulated by the music. Middle Child have made their name through gig theatre and the success of break-out shows such as All We Ever Wanted Was Everything; this production stands just as tall. Although it is more stripped back than other Middle Child production’s I have seen, I think that this has the advantage of preventing ‘show’ from getting in the way of ‘tell’. This soundtrack, co-composed by talented rapper Prez 96 (Nigel Taylor) and Middle Child maestro James Frewer, pitches painfully private-school cellos and a classical style against grime’s beats and lyrics. Individually incredible but forced when together, the discordance between the two goes beyond words to highlight the systematic clash between two worlds and cultures that cannot, and will not, harmonise – and in fact demonstrates it better than words could. The music sits in your stomach differently to a piece of straight acting. Gig theatre has always been about fighting back against something, with a focus on making the audience a community, making them feel first and think later. At its best, it’s accessible, powerful and entertaining and The Canary and The Crow ticks these boxes. It’s the vibrant pulse of the contemporary theatre scene.
The inclusion of grime not only brings the energy and rage but is especially powerful in this production. By taking a genre that’s gone from East London pirate radios in the early 00’s to being consumed and co-opted by mainstream audiences without really thinking about its origins in the estates and youth centres of London’s poorest areas, it brilliantly compliments the action onstage, where “posh white kids talking greeze and dirt”. The 140bpm, spitting some hard lyrics and the talented mixing and performance by Prez 96 makes this the perfect soundtrack.
“This is a production that demands attention and needs to be seen”
This piece of gig theatre shows what theatre should be, but more importantly, what it needs to become. I was lucky enough to hear about this play before I went, when the Tower Hamlets youth service I work for (Spotlight, big up yourself) took a group of young people from our new drill theatre programme. Knowing that a new generation of young people get to see productions like this makes non-exclusive, innovative theatre like The Canary and the Crow so important, as something that can inspire a new wave of creatives.
Going myself, it was clear how middle class and white your usual theatre audience usually is. And The Canary and The Crow knows this, but is not afraid to make this audience feel uncomfortable, calling out the way that the inner city, majority black, culture is consumed. There is pain in this production that a white audience can sympathise with but not fully access, and I know there is a limit to the extent to which a white reviewer can judge a production about the experience of being black in a world that bases privilege on lighter skin tones. But what I do know is that this is a production that demands attention and needs to be seen.
Ultimately this performance is a snapshot which lacks a tidy conclusion or ending – but that kind of feels like the point. The fringe theatre scene needs productions that are ground-breaking and that are relevant, and this ticks both those boxes. It’s a play with massive heart that gives you a good night out, but which you’re still thinking about long after it has ended.