‘The Canary and the Crow’ review

Theatre, Off-West End
Recommended
4 out of 5 stars
The Canary and the Crow
Photograph: The Other Richard The Canary and the Crow

Time Out says

4 out of 5 stars

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Electrifying gig-theatre show about a working-class black boy who goes to a fancy grammar school

Daniel Ward’s ‘The Canary and the Crow’ is funny and burningly fierce. It’s inspired by his experiences of being one of the only black, working-class kids accepted into in his year at a respected grammar school. It also answers a question he boots into the audience at the start: what was it like to be a black student at a British drama school? And coming just days after a white actor, buoyed aloft by his surname, announced on primetime TV that he’s bored of conversations about racism, and that everything’s sunny in the UK, it’s a stinging rebuke.

The show arrives at the Arcola after a hit run at last year’s Edinburgh Fringe. Hull-based theatre company Middle Child’s production is staged in the round, with co-composer Prez 96 (aka Nigel Taylor) regularly jumping up from his laptop, mic in hand, to perform the grime-infused tracks that act as the show’s propulsion and its lyrical voice. ‘Gig theatre’ is a sometimes superficially applied label, but here, director Paul Smith succeeds in making sure that it’s completely core to the show’s timely message about identity – individually, socially and how we tell people’s stories.

The combination of processed beats and the twanging, answering call of the cellos played by performers Rachael Barnes and Laurie Jamieson is electrifying. It’s an adrenalising way to capture the wrench experienced by The Bird (Ward) as he’s pulled out of his previous life. Ward structures the show around The Bird’s ‘lessons’, which are essentially about ingraining into him the need to conform, to be endlessly grateful, to suck it up when his classmates patronise him and to consider himself ‘better’ now.

This identity crisis is the ache at the heart of the show, which deftly avoids clumsily dropping into salutary tale territory. Sometimes, Barnes and Jamieson’s laugh-out-loud performances as the various students and teachers surrounding The Bird threaten to tip the balance too far the other way, pulling focus. But Ward, sharp and charismatic, is always the anchor. He captures the cadences of an 11-year-old boy first noticing the sly, slippery language of exclusion, and the anger of a black man in a British society that’s playing innocent while still only paying lip service to equality.

By: Tom Wicker

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