Writer: Phil Davies
Director: Edward Hall
Reviewer: Madelaine Bowman
After gaining huge success with a sell-out run last year at North London’s Hampstead Theatre, Firebird has arrived on the West End, and it’s just as powerful and harrowing as it was the first time round. Devised in response to the child sex trafficking case that took the UK by storm just a few years ago, Phil Davies’ debut play, co-produced by The Children’s Society, tells the story of 14-year-old Tia (Callie Cooke), a mouthy and seemingly confident teenage girl from Rochdale, who finds herself trapped in a cycle of sexual abuse after meeting a charming older man in her local kebab shop.
The play opens with Tia and her best friend Katie (Tahirah Sharif) bursting onto the stage and taking it in turns to swigchampagne out of the bottle. Things soon turn ugly, though, as Tia devises a game to expose Katie’s virginity and begins to laugh and poke fun of her. Confused and hurt by her friend’s cruel behaviour, Katie runs off leaving Tia by herself, and it’s at this point that we are transported back in time to the evening when Tia first encounters AJ (Phadlut Sharma) – a well-dressed older man with a flashy car, and secret connections to a prolific paedophile ring.
Confronting as the narrative is as a whole, one of the most disturbing scenes is the one in which Tia, having sustained immobilizing injuries after jumping out of a high storey window to escape her abusers, finds herself in an interview room with a police officer, who seems more concerned with getting home after a hard day’s work than he is with getting to the bottom of the abuse that she has suffered.
Cleverly, Sharma is chosen to play both AJ and the police officer, which works to highlight the way in which the children involved in the real scandal were let down not only by those who groomed and abused them, but by the authorities, who failed time and again to provide protection. Easy as it might be to question how a cocky teenage girl could ever find herself spending time with a gang of abusive older men other than by her own choice, Firebird asks the audience to consider the vulnerability and naivety of disadvantaged children like Tia who may find themselves easily falling prey to the manipulative charms of those like AJ who seek to hurt them.
While all three actors give faultless performances throughout this gripping and highly emotive drama, Cooke’s portrayal of Tia is particularly powerful, bringing Davies’ script to life with all the vibrancy, energy and psychological anguish that you’d expect to see in a messed up teenager. Edward Hall’s sharp and incisive directing is also worthy of praise, as it allows each of Davies’ characters to flourish while always maintaining an acute focus on Tia and the mental and physical pain that she is subject to.
Highlighting the immense failings of society to protect our most vulnerable citizens from exploitation and giving a powerful voice to the real victims of this case whose cries for help were ignored at the time, Firebird deserves the highest praise for tackling with profound integrity and compassion for the affected children a subject that is all too often swept under the carpet.
Runs until 19 March 2016 | Image: Robert Day