Penny Flood is gripped by the plight of three children left home alone
Three Birds takes the audience on an emotional roller coaster as it sharply observes how three children cope in their fraught lives over just a couple of days. It is a skilful mix of drama, comedy, mystery, horror and pathos.
Jackie called her children her ‘three birds’: sixteen year old Tiana, thirteen year old Tionne and nine year old Tanika. However, Jackie’s gone and the children are alone and they know they have to keep the outside world at bay or the little family will be split up.
Inevitably the outside world intrudes, barging in as the hyperactive Dr Feelgood (Lee Oakes), a drug dealer with a heart buried in his tough exterior, and more gently as school mistress Ms Jenkins (Claire Brown).
Much of the humour is provided by Tanika (Susan Wokoma), with her child’s sense of excitement as she chatters constantly about her days at school, and her adored teacher Ms Jenkins. In perfectly capturing Tanika’s bubbling enthusiasm, Wokoma remains childish and childlike throughout, whether she’s accepting chocolate bribes, jumping about in fairy wings or dressing as Greek god Proteus (for whom she is writing a diary in which nothing happens, quipping he is the God of the Future).
Michaela Coel’s Tiana has the sassiness of a sixteen year old and vulnerability of a child with heavy burdens to bear. She weaves dreams for her two siblings to help make the world’s nastiness go away. Their brother Tionne (Jahvel Hall) gives the appearance of a sullen teenager, but when his facade falls he reveals the distress and fear behind his silences and occasional jokes.
The plot reveals itself gradually, with a few clues to some bizarre happenings. Why do they use the kitchen as a bathroom? Why are they selling Jackie’s clothes on eBay? What’s in Tionne’s parcels from Amazon? And why do they need so many dead chickens?
Janice Okoh’s script is sharply observed and infused with a sympathy and understanding for her characters’ predicaments, so that even at their most ridiculous or hurtful they are also shown to be vulnerable and full of spirit in the face of their awful situation. It is clear why the play was good enough won the 2011 Bruntwood Prize for Playwriting, although I feel in places Okoh seems to try too hard for laughs and slips too close to farce, when it is strong enough not to need either.
Despite my quibbles, this is a play that grips and moves as it reveals the drama that has ensnared the three birds.
Three Birds continues at the Bush Theatre until Saturday April 20. Book tickets online or call the box office on 020 8743 5050.
March 26, 2013