Often romanticised for their gangster lifestyle, the East London Kray twins hold an iconic status, further pronounced by the 2015 film Legend featuring Tom Hardy playing both Ron and Reggie. Traditionally, the Krays have enjoyed acclaim for their violent antics rather than the repulsion you would expect for their multitude of offences, including shooting someone in the face in the Blind Beggar pub. In Where Do Little Birds Go? we are invited to spend time with someone on the receiving end of their notorious cruelty.
Camilla Whitehill’s play began germination three years ago in collaboration with director Sarah Meadows. First performed at Camden People’s Theatre in August 2014, it went on to be performed at the VAULT Festival before heading up to Edinburgh to play at the Fringe. It is now enjoying a month long transfer in London at the Old Red lion. On the cusp of East London, in a pub theatre, this is perhaps the most at home the production could be. Having three years development has injected this fringe piece with more storytelling finesse than is typical for shows that bounce around the fringe London venues.
It’s 1966 and recent London resident, 18 year old Lucy Fuller (Jessica Butcher), finds herself employed at Winston’s Nightclub, an infamous venue in Mayfair known for its clientele of gangsters, European millionaires and the Kray Twins. Distanced from her parents and recently devoid of her only adult carer, Lucy falls into prostitution in order to pay her bills. Quickly drawing the attention on Ronnie Kray, she is swept into a world of violence and exploitation. Despite being set in 60s London, Whitehill points out in her foreword that we still feel very connected with Lucy’s plight of abuse which still plagues society today.
With her back to the audience, Butcher sings ‘Bells will Ring’ from Charlie Girl, only turning around to receive her applause. Though Lucy has Barbara Windsor shaped stars in her eyes, Butcher’s singing voice depicts the vulnerability and sadness of Lucy’s situation so astutely, that moments where she sings become the most emotionally raw of the show.
Comparatively, it feels as though more could have been made of Lucy’s captivity. Though we feel as though we know her aspirations for stardom well and her experience as a fish out of water in London, it is the trauma of being a Kray victim that feels slightly bare. The production may have benefited from further exploration of the demonic side to the Krays and more time being devoted to this on stage. Lucy’s trauma is best illustrated when Butcher conducts a mechanic delivery of cyclic positions she is forced into by her captor, that depict her sexual abuse. Still and doll-like, we see the disconnect between the ambitious 18-year-old wannabee starlet and a person taken complete advantage of.
Though it tackles dark themes of abuse, the production is infused with a youthful energy that negotiates space for joy and optimism as well as trauma. Much of the production is very funny. Almost child-like, Butcher skips around the stage, ascending table tops to wax lyrical about her ambitions of stardom.
Butcher’s vivid and varied performance, alongside an imaginative interpretation of the script delivered at a brisk speed make for a captivating production. It is one that confidently articulates the collaborative effort of three creative female artists, in the primary steps of exciting careers.
Where Do Little Birds Go? is playing at the Old Red Lion until November 26.
Photo: Camilla Whitehill