New Writing: Something Fresh and Different

Three Birds at the Bush Theatre

The 2011 Bruntwood Prize winner has made its way to London following a successful stint at Manchester’s Royal Exchange. Okoh’s writing is sharp, witty and chucks out a pretty hard punch but the ridiculous concept overshadows everything else. At the Bush Theatre.

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The 2011 Bruntwood Prize winner has made its way to London following a successful stint at Manchester’s Royal Exchange. Janice Okoh’s Three Birds focuses on a nest of youngsters not yet ready to fly. From the very beginning, we can tell something’s not quite right. Tionne is plucking up the courage to behead the chicken, whilst older sister, Tiana, eggs him on (note intentional puns). The bathroom is clearly out of order and has been for some time, and an array of funky smells filter into the home – perhaps something to do with Tanika’s need to relieve herself in the kitchen, or maybe because none of these youngsters have washed for what might have been quite a while. Hiding behind twitchy curtains, the three siblings ignore a somewhat pressing and messy matter in order to pretend everything’s just as it should be. Filling their heads with fantasies of a future not on the horizon, the three T’s live in the cold and sombre shadow or a recently departed relative. Thus, there’s much more at stake in this Home-Alone-esque take.

Okoh’s writing is sharp, witty and chucks out a pretty hard punch. The play centres on a quirky/insane (struggling to select the appropriate) idea so in every sense of the word it is “original”. But it’s also a bit too far-fetched, to the point where you neither believe what’s happening, nor  particularly feel much sympathy or heartache for the three neglected birds (except perhaps the youngest). The concept makes it hard to connect with the family… becauseit would NEVER happen! I didn’t believe Tiana’s journey: despite having an older head on her shoulders, it’s not particularly convincing that the eldest sister would let things get that far. I didn’t “get” the brother – his obsession with embalming is explained but it just doesn’t wash. Through no fault of their own, there is no real depth to the characters.  

The strongest performance is no doubt Susan Wokoma’s, who effortlessly transforms herself into a primary-school-aged kid – so convincingly that I fleetingly questioned whether she was in fact a child. (I bumped into her during the after-show party and she’s not). Wokoma brings together the right balance of impressionable and cheeky, and her Tanika is sensitively delivered. Claire Brown makes for a very comical Ms Jenkins and evokes a sense of the familiar – I think we all had a school teacher like that! All in all, a talented cast.

Sarah Frankom’s direction is slick and fast-paced, but this over-ambitious energy results in a lack of connection – for the simple reason that the actors aren’t listening to what each other are saying. It, therefore, looks a bit staged. For the most part, I enjoyed the show, but little things irritated me. Although comfortable in his sisters’ company, Tionne doesn’t speak to strangers – he’s a self-imposed mute – but this changes in the latter half of the show and he suddenly starts talking to Ms Jenkins, who doesn’t blink an eye at his new-found confidence and tongue.

Three Birds offers something fresh and different – it will nudge the odd giggle out of you and there’s no doubt that it is very well written… but the ridiculous concept overshadows everything else. Don’t get me wrong; I love a bit of weird and wacky, and you don’t have to believe what’s going on to be entertained, but it’s not a play I’ll be thinking about for very long. Overall, I did enjoy this show. It’s easy-to-watch and the action is snappy. Janice Okoh creates a sense of mystery from the very start and you do want to find out more… but then it all becomes a bit silly and you’re like, riiiiiiight…

Date reviewed: Friday 22nd March 2013
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