Just as Phil Davies’ highly relevant play Firebird transfers from the Hampstead Theatre to Trafalgar Studios 2, the verdict regarding the child exploitation ring in Rotherham is announced proving once again that this play is not just a story but based on real events.
14-year old Tia (Callie Cooke) hides her loneliness and vulnerability behind a mouthy and defensive attitude. Trying to stay away from her foster mother and their rundown estate as much as possible, Tia ends up in a Kebab shop after school, soaking wet and cold in her skimpy clothes. She quickly falls for the charms of charismatic AJ (Phaldut Sharma), a man more than twice her age, who treats her to chips and a coke, laughing at her jokes and telling her that she is beautiful. Tia is overwhelmed by his kindness and readily agrees to come to a party with his friends.
The play is framed by several scenes that take place after Tia’s abuse. Tia is in a wheelchair telling Katie (Tahirah Sharif), a British-Jamaican girl, that she has broken her leg falling down the stairs as they drink expensive champagne and play games. Yet something is not quite right with Tia. She is overwrought and very nervous. When she tries to interrogate Katie about her sex life, the two girls get into a fight and Katie runs away, leaving Tia on the floor with her tipped over wheelchair. Soon Tia’s phone is ringing.
Directed by Edward Hall, Artistic Director of the Hampstead Theatre, this production takes us through the nightmarish experience of a naive teenage girl who is being groomed by older men for their sexual pleasure, numbing her with alcohol and buying her “consent” with expensive gifts and the promise of friendship. Tia is a perfect target – a lonely girl with low self-esteem and starved for any kind of affection. Callie Cooke gives an outstanding performance as Tia who is crushed and ruined for the pleasure of those men, who often have a family but hold girls like Tia in such low esteem that they don’t even think they do anything wrong when abusing them. The casting of the excellent Phaldut Sharma as both AJ and the only other man that is seen on stage, a police detective named Simon, is not a coincidence as it makes us see the world through Tia’s eyes: all men are the same. Simon, a tired civil servant near the end of his shift, shows little empathy for the girl as he mechanically pushes her through the process, probably traumatising the victim even more. The play’s ending adds another horror to this deeply disturbing story.
With the audience seated on all four sides of the stage in this intimate space, we are very close to the actors which makes the performance even more unsettling.
A very powerful and important production.
Reviewed by: Carolin Kopplin
Photo: Robert Day
Firebird is playing at the Trafalgar Studios until 19 March. Click here for tickets