Where Do Little Birds Go? depicts the story of Lucy Fuller, lately arrived in London, and swiftly drawn into a world of violence and exploitation when she attracts the attention of the notorious Kray brothers. Touching, funny, poignant and affecting, it closes this weekend after a run at the Old Red Lion that’s seen it win praise from critics. Here, director and co-collaborator on the piece, Sarah Meadows explains why it strikes such a relevant note.
The first ever reading of Where Do Little Birds Go? took place in December 2012, appropriately and predictably above a pub in east London. Since then the production has been presented at Camden People’s Theatre, VAULT Festival, been on a UK tour and enjoyed a sell-out run at Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2015. Its current run, at London’s Old Red Lion Theatre, is a year on since we were last on stage with it.
In 2012, Camilla Whitehill had written one of her very first short plays for a writing competition I was running and she won. Part of the prize was for her to be supported to write her first full-length play, and after I heard the first draft I remember very clearly the moment I said I thought there was something special about it, and about Camilla’s writing, and that I would like to direct it.
Here we are four years later, back on the stage of one of London’s premier Off West End theatres, with our incredible production team and company, Longsight Theatre, that we’ve built through this show. Based on true events, the play gives a voice to a silenced woman who was abducted by the Kray twins in 1960s London, and locked in an East London flat for several days with an escaped murderer. It begins in The Blind Beggar, and we’ve always wanted it to be seen in a pub theatre, so this is a perfect home coming really and we’ve been able to properly engage with an audience who existed in east London during the time the play is set.
Coming back to a show as many times as we have is a fascinating process, especially as this is a solo show, new writing and Jessica Butcher has been playing the character for two years. Of course, the production was built during the first run in Camden and the decisions we made were based on discoveries you can only make when you first start exploring a play and experimenting with a character and the production form, but how to keep all of those choices relevant, real and evolving, has been my main focus.
Jessica and I ensure we question everything, every time we come back to the play. We go back to our research and find new information to challenge and inspire our choices. We find it important to check in with ourselves as women and theatre makers and the world that is the backdrop to the play. I’ve found that it is about the slightest of shifts in intention and presentation that ensures the work remains true to its original instincts whilst changing to move forward like everything has to and inevitably does. Coupled with that, I’ve had a great time with Jessica maturing the character we have created together, and as Jessica and I are now two years older, so are the possibilities of Lucy, which as we have found are endless.
A recent review stated “a very important play for our time.” We’ve never had a quote that places the work’s relevance so firmly in the now in its two years of touring, which says a lot. I don’t think it’s ever been so relevant, as it feels to be telling it in 2016. This is a play based in 60s London exploring a very specific story of an abuse of power and of sexual exploitation. When we took the show to Edinburgh, it was performed against the backdrop of the release of a film about the Krays – Legend. By many accounts (I’ve honestly not seen it so all speculation), this film continued to potentially skew the presentation of women in these narratives, as is so often the case. Now our backdrop is the headlines of Brexit and Trump. Some of the tweets we’ve received about the show this time round have really struck me. For example, “the endurance of women. My god,” and “a chilling prelude to the elections”.
I will never forget when we came back to rehearse Birds for the third time and Jessica and I discussed the moment in our show where an American man grabs the character’s vagina. I had decided to put this moment vividly in the production two years ago, to try and communicate the level of sexual physical violence and violation women face, often ‘casually’ every day. Incredibly, as I write this today Donald “grab them by the pussy” Trump has just been elected president of the United States. I see it all the time with this play – people are still really challenged by seeing a story like this on stage and it appears that this shock is increasing. This play is no longer a period piece that presents behaviours long gone.
No matter what play is being put on, be that new writing or Shakespeare, it’s vital to properly interrogate what that play means now, and how to tell it in a way that is contributing to public discussion.
Where Do Little Birds Go is at the Old Red Lion until November 26.
Image: Camilla Whitehall