The Canary and the Crow – Arcola Theatre, London

Reviewer: Maryam Philpott

Writer: Daniel Ward

Director: Paul Smith

It is reassuring to know that in spite of funding cuts and increasingly restricted access to cultural activity, that regional theatre is still finding a way, and it is here in the past few years that so many new voices have emerged, bringing with them different narratives and new forms of storytelling. Hull-based theatre company Middle Child have taken their award-winning The Canary and the Crow to Edinburgh, to Brighton and many other places and, for once, London is the last to know.

At 10-years old ‘The Bird’ learns he has won a place at the prestigious Patrician Boys’ School, bringing with it a scholarship and the chance of a very different future. One of only two black boys in the school, he must navigate the difficulties of fitting in while becoming increasingly alienated from his community. When his two worlds violently collide will he stand with the canaries or the crows?

Created by and starring Daniel Ward, this is theatre at its most alive and most boundary spanning, erasing the divide between the Arcola Theatre audience and the performance space with embracing live music and gesticular participation to warm the crowd. But soon, through a combination of songs, beat poetry and narration Ward demonstrates how different our perspectives are. Same situation “two worlds” he repeats again and again which is explored through his flashback narrative device, so by the end of The Canary and the Crow you finally start to understand that there is no single truth, that the circumstances that brought us here and will take us away are fatefully different.

Music is crucial to the flow and impact of this show, seamlessly marrying together grime and rap with classical styles and operatic vocals. Initially, these are used to separately represent the contrasting situations of The Bird’s childhood, the urban beat of grime expanding on concepts of community, struggle, and solidarity while the cello and keyboard numbers reflect the refinement and comic pomposity of the private school with its predominately white cultural influences.

And later, when the allegory of the canary and the crow, which feeds through the show, pits them against one another in a musical battle, all you hear is their perfect combination of complimentary sounds that sweeten and deepen one another – how much that has to say about other kinds of harmony and inclusion we should aspire to.

With only four performers, Rachel Barnes and Laurie Jamieson take on a number of comically exaggerated characters who instantly created the school world with a language obsessed maths teacher and sidling headmaster being the highlight. Both also play the cello while Barnes adds keyboard and opera vocals. Nigel Taylor is wonderful as Snipes – Ryan to us because we don’t know him – a young black man denied the privileges of The Bird’s education, bouncing instead from zero-hours contracts, to desperation and violence.

But it is Ward’s show, one that feels at once like a confessional, a plea for understanding and a warning about the division of opportunity that drives primary school children onto entirely different paths. The lessons-based format that structures the show becomes a little restrictive and the energy starts to sag in the final third, but the message is ferocious, as long as we encourage ambition without opportunity the canaries and the crows will never enhance each other’s songs.

Runs Until: 8 February 2020 

The Reviews Hub Score

Boundary spanning

The Reviews Hub - London

The Reviews Hub London is under the acting editorship of Richard Maguire. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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