Arcola Theatre, London *****
Runs: 1hr 10 mins without interval
Box Office: 020 7503 1646
Review of perf seen Feb 3, 2020:
There have been many plays about racism over the past half century but I don’t remember any that hit so hard, so fluently or so entertainingly as the Hull-based company, Middle Child’s The Canary and the Crow written by Daniel Ward.Ward’s is a highly personal story, riven from the belly as a young black British kid growing up with a single mum and winning a scholarship to a posh school where the colour of his skin was matched by only one other.
Yet Middle Child director Paul Smith, co-composers Prez 96 and James Frewer and all four performers – Rachel Barnes, Laurie Jamieson, Nigel Taylor and Ward himself, combine to make The Canary and the Crow reach far beyond the confines of a black boy in a mainly white school.
For The Canary and the Crow turns out to be a universal story of anyone caught between two worlds who understands about the perils and whirlpools of assimilation, `otherness’, of the pressures to be polite in order to `fit in’.
Yet ironically here, the medium IS the message to a pathway that spells out `inclusion’ because Paul Smith’s `gig’ theatre mission to `make a revolution’ and `shake up theatre’ involves 70 minutes where rap, text, movement and music of several spheres merge and enmesh themselves in such a way as to produce a marvellous, original synthesis which embraces us all.
Ward, recounting the dilemma and vortex of painful emotions of moving from being part of one, black, community to finding himself grappling with the mores and customs of another (white) one – despised by the former, not entirely accepted by the latter – finds the most humane, eloquent of descriptions in one of his rapping bursts when he says:
`Down to our very DNA/We are different in every way/but when you combine all the things in this/You get a perfect synthesis/Of the best parts of the whole/From the suburbs to the road/And so this bird has to evolve/And become something new to behold.’
Gems of truth and beauty are scattered through a script that embraces the metaphorical, personal testimony and rap, as first the canary is featured then the crow as objects of rejection and contrasts are made between those presented by education and denied to others ending in crime and violence.
But as much as Ward constantly brings you back to the subject in hand – prejudice and bigotry and stereotyping – it is also Smith’s direction and the multiple musical/performing skills of his cast that make this such an outstanding theatre experience.
Nigel Taylor (Prez 96), and MC, gets the evening off to a flying start, working up a storm as if summoning fans to a gig.
Arms waving in the air, audience calling and responding, Rachel Barnes on keyboard – a deceptively accomplished soprano when called upon to deliver – and Laurie Jamieson, a walking cello – then add a myriad number of gestures and subtexts – physical and musical – so subtle if you blinked you’d miss them.
Together they with Taylor and Ward’s own rap and response add up to a riveting musical fusion of classical music with grime and rap and a production of endless surprise, originality, genuine pain and revelation.
To say I loved it would be, you’ve guessed, an understatement. I’m only sorry it took me so long to catch up with it.
But I shall be keeping a beady eye open from now on, for all of those involved – Middle Child, Paul Smith, Rachel Barnes, Laurie Jamieson, Nigel Taylor and not least and above all, Daniel Ward himself.
As he says, both birds, canary and crow, were pushed to the edge. But flew.
`This is my art. I dare you say to try and tell me it’s not relevant.’
It is Daniel, oh it is – a hundred times over.
The Canary and the Crow
By Daniel Ward
The Cage/Head of Year/Schoolkid 2/Maths Teacher/Keyboard Warrior 1/James/The Canary: Rachel Barnes
The Cage/Big Year 9/ Schoolkid 1/ Keyboard Warrior 2/ Alex/ Richard: Laurie Jamieson
The Cage/ Snips/ Pig: Nigel Taylor
The Bird: Daniel Ward
Director: Paul Smith
Co-composer: Prez 96
Co-composer and Musical Director: James Frewer
Designer: Natalie Young
Lighting Designer: Jess Addinall
Movement Director: Ryan Harston
Artistic Associate: Matthew May
Deputy Stage Manager: Danielle Harris
Producer: Rozzy Knox
Presented by Arcola Theatre and Middle Child
First perf of The Canary and the Crow at Arcola Theatre, London, Jan 16, 2020.
Runs to Feb 8, 2020.
First premiered at the Edinburgh Fringe, 2019, then toured with Paines Plough Roundabout through autumn 2019.