The transfer of Bruntwood Prize-winning Three Birds by Janice Okoh from Manchester’s Royal Exchange to the city where its action is set only gives a sharper resonance to this sometimes chaotic but truly remarkable snapshot of three apparently abandoned siblings’ attempts to keep the real world out. Director Sarah Frankom’s assured production, bolstered by an excellent cast, delivers a dark encounter with human desperation somehow still brimming with comedy and love.
Like a Pitchfork Disney for the Primark/Beiber generation, fantasy and grim reality fight it out in the front room of a south London flat, its neutral décor throughout aesthetic barely disguising the near-poverty of its troubled inhabitants. It is crucial that designer Louie Whitemore’s frighteningly accurate set grounds the play’s extremities in a recognisable reality because there is certainly something strange going on in this household. Quick-fire exchanges between the squabbling siblings, half-fury but mostly love, are a joy to behold. Nevertheless, it’s clear that all’s not well here – something goes ominously unsaid, almost as if the characters can feel the eyes of audience upon them.
Fiercely protective but quietly disintegrating older sister Tiana (Michaela Coel) struggles to maintain the balance as outside agencies threaten to disrupt their odd equilibrium.Ten-year old Tanika (a truly astonishing performance from Susan Wokomo) is pacified with increasingly outlandish and heartbreaking promises about the eventual “real house”, whilst copious amounts of vodka and chicken must be sourced for the damaged Tionne’s (Jahvel Hall) undisclosed experiments. Perhaps because such laboured exposition would counteract the play’s accomplished naturalism, we spend much of the first half with very little concrete information about these characters. Yet despite some confusion as to ages, names and what on earth is going on, we find ourselves falling in love with these fragile, ill-fated but stubbornly optimistic individuals. The star of the show is undoubtedly Tanika, an aggressively precocious tween whose crush on her teacher reveals a desperation for motherly love. Selective-mute Tionne is a dark horse, switching between OCD- absorption with his ‘project’ and ecstatic moments of spontaneous joke-telling. In the play’s final moments he becomes the main purveyor of emotional devastation. In oldest sister Tiana the family finds its story-teller and makeshift mother, whose admirable commitment to the fictions she nearly believes in allows the family to transcend its dire situation. In a particularly absorbing performance, Cole imbues the often intimidating Tiana with an almost regal elegance – somehow making a farm break-in/chicken murder learnt from Youtube videos sound like a profoundly noble endeavour.
Meanwhile, climbing through the window is Dr Feelgood (the riveting Lee Oakes), the lanky, lairy drug-dealer with surprisingly honourable intentions. His twitchy mile-a-minute talk injects energy into the sometimes slackening pace whilst his acts of kindness provide a refreshing spin on a common stereotype. Another ingenious creation is the seeming saviour Miss Jenkins, played to poisonous perfection by Claire Brown. The object of Tanika’s affection is a cheery but interfering primary teacher whose techniques clearly fail her outside the classroom – a stark reminder of how, for these siblings, help only ever hinders. Overall, the dynamic force of these characters and the barrage of revelations towards the end, combined with a necessarily slow exposition, means it’s sometimes difficult to sustain all the emotions the action demands. Still, whilst the play could’ve been a quarter of an hour shorter, it almost seems worth it to spend more time with these troubled but loveable human beings.
It is not difficult to see why Janice Okoh is an award-winning playwright – her writing is at once subtle and vibrant, ricocheting between of-the-moment, raw, keenly-observed realism and searing moments of poetry. It is impressive that Okoh, Frankom and the cast manage to keep the poignant story of a family desperate to stay together at the heart of this melting-pot of social realism, in-yer-face ghastliness and surreal comic farce. Every time the three siblings sit together on the sofa, this simple image is a stab in the heart. “This is neglect!” declares Miss Jenkins when the extent of the sibling’s dysfunction is revealed and yet we, the audience, are somehow inclined to disagree. Even as everything collapses and horrifying truths come to light, we only become more painfully aware of the siblings’ fierce love for each other that fuels their futile attempt to remain a family in the face of disaster. Harrowing and hilarious, Three Birds is a grisly tale with a heart of gold, in which glorious writing is performed with the passion and precision it deserves.
Three Birds is playing at the Bush Theatre until 20 April. For more information and tickets, see the Bush Theatre website.