Review: Firebird Might Be Grim But It's A Must-See
Those who see Firebird — Hampstead Theatre's latest West End transfer at Trafalgar Studios — should expect to walk out feeling like they've been slapped in the face, albeit in an enlightening way. The sexual exploitation of teenagers in the UK is a grim reality that many would rather ignore, but this play brings it to light with rare eloquence.
Firebird tells the story of Tia (Callie Cooke) who finds herself in an abusive relationship with a much older man. The virtually set-less play lurches from scene to scene accompanied by thumping pop music; a fast-paced series of flashbacks showing the audience how Tia finds herself in love, coerced and in considerable danger. Clever little touches (by designer Polly Sullivan) denote changes in location such as the flashing neon sign of a kebab shop or a mattress dropping from the ceiling to depict Tia's squalid bedroom.
Such graceful handling of a deeply disturbing subject is in part due to meticulous research by writer Phil Davies; produced in association with charity The Children's Society it draws on court appearances, newspaper reports and records of interviews with real victims. The realness of the source material helps pull us into the story.
Completing the effect is an outstanding lead performance from newcomer Callie Cooke. Cooke is staggeringly good — yes, this is her first professional role — but moreover it's rare to see an actor lose themselves in a character so entirely. With a huge depth of emotion, she makes us believe in the mouthy, witty, cunning and vulnerable girl in front of us, and feel for her deeply.
Davies perfectly captures the complexities of human relationships particularly in his portrayal of Tia's friendship with Katie (Tahirah Sharif). Katie's bright eyed innocence is a heartbreaking counterpoint to Tia's traumatising experiences at the hands of Ajay (Phaldut Sharma). Sharif has a bubbly energy that endears us to her character easily whilst Sharma brilliantly conveys a subtle portrait of Ajay whose cheery facade quickly falls away to reveal a manipulative and selfish abuser.
Reassuringly Tia and Katie's friendship survives against the odds. As the two girls get drunk, argue and joke on top of a hill, however, their shared vulnerability becomes terrifyingly clear: it's so easy is for naive young people to fall victim to abuse.
Firebird is on at Trafalgar Studios 14 Whitehall SW1A 2DY, 17 February-19 March. Tickets £15-£30. Londonist saw this show on a complimentary ticket.
Last Updated 23 February 2016