Three Birds – Bush Theatre, London – review by Carole Woddis.

Janice Okoh’s Three Birds, which won the prestigious Bruntwood playwriting prize for 2011, was warmly praised by Simon Stephens, one of this country’s foremost playwrights and Chair of the judges for the award.

I’d like to say that I could see why.  But Okoh’s play, premiered at Manchester’s Royal Exchange who initiated the Bruntwood scheme to encourage new writers too often left me in the dark to fully enjoy the qualities the judges obviously found in it.

There have been many plays in recent times touching on some of the same themes Okoh addresses.  Okoh just does it with less compromise.  Three Birds takes no prisoners.

Set in south east London, in Lewisham, the play touches on death, drug dealing and the grisly business of burying the dead.  It doesn’t make much of a role model for, the night I was there, the largely young black audience though I don’t doubt its accuracy.

From time to time, cases about the practise of African rituals transplanted to Britain have surfaced in the papers.  They make tough reading.

Okoh takes this theme and filters it through the prism of a particularly dysfunctional young family from south east London if with a good deal of subversive – if not always easy to follow – humour.  Her dialogue is sparky, very `black street’ and often shocks.  Opening with the garrotting of a chicken, it goes on from there.

In a sparse living room, action centres round three individuals, a teenage girl, her brother and an older sibling.  A white drug dealer, Mr Feelgood, and a teacher also appear, to add a sense of encircling pressure to this tight-knit trio.

I was never quite sure, however, if Tiana, the elder sibling was the teenagers’ mother, or whether maybe they were fostered or adopted by her.  Just one of the many hurdles the play presents.

Much did become clearer towards the end.  And over a period of 90 minutes, Okoh does raise awkward questions about modern day life for black British families: a world dominated by consumerism to make up for educational and cultural voids, a world where dream, fantasy and reality often merge and where `family values’ can take on a whole new meaning.

Without wishing to add a spoiler, suffice it to say that Sarah Frankcom’s production with its hard metal score and extraordinary performances from its cast, particularly young Susan Wokoma as the mouthy, bright if troubled youngest sister, Tanika, ultimately draws sympathy for individuals excluded from `the big society’, driven by desperation and confusion to unimaginable and unconventional ends.

To April 20

www.bushtheatre.co.uk

Carole Woddis © April 9, 2013.

Lee Oakes as Dr Feelgood  in THREE BIRDS by Janice Okoh. Photo - Jonathan Keenan.
Michaela Coel as Tiana (left) and Susan Wokoma as Tanika  in THREE BIRDS by Janice Okoh. Photo - Jonathan Keenan.
Michaela Coel as Tiana (left) and Susan Wokoma as Tanika  in THREE BIRDS by Janice Okoh. Photo - Jonathan Keenan.
Michaela Coel as Tiana and Lee Oakes as Dr Feelgood in THREE BIRDS by Janice Okoh. Photo - Jonathan Keenan.
Susan Wokoma as Tanika (left) and Michaela Coel as Tiana  in THREE BIRDS by Janice Okoh. Photo - Jonathan Keenan.
(l-r) Jahvel Hall as Tionne, Michaela Coel as Tiana and Susan Wokoma as Tanika  in THREE BIRDS by Janice Okoh. Photo - Jonathan Keenan.
(l-r) Susan Wokoma as Tanika, Michaela Coel as Tiana and Jahvel Hall as Tionne  in THREE BIRDS by Janice Okoh. Photo - Jonathan Keenan.
Claire Brown as Ms Jenkins and Jahvel Hall as Tionne  in THREE BIRDS by Janice Okoh. Photo - Jonathan Keenan.
Lee Oakes as Dr Feelgood  in THREE BIRDS by Janice Okoh. Photo - Jonathan Keenan.
Michaela Coel as Tiana (left) and Susan Wokoma as Tanika  in THREE BIRDS by Janice Okoh. Photo - Jonathan Keenan.