Tia is fourteen and lives with her foster mum in Rochdale. She’s had a rough life growing up the care system, and no one seems to care about her. When she meets “youth worker” AJ in a kebab shop, he gives her a cigarette, offers to buy her chips and take her to a “party” in his flash car. A bit of attention and some small gifts, and Tia’s sold. She gets more than she expects in Phil Davies’ first full-length play, though. Manipulation and lies lead to her rape rewarded with new clothes, booze and fags. Not just once, but again and again. Firebird depicts the exploitation of this young woman with harrowing language and stark staging, reminding the audience that this abuse happens up and down the country. With child poverty on the rise and social media so vital to teenaged communication, the risk of this abuse is increasing; Firebird reminds us that this could happen to any young people we know. Davies’ script, episodic with large gaps in time, is sometimes lacking but good performances anchor this emotional work.
Callie Cooke is a brash, mouthy Tia with a fragile exterior often dissolving into tears. She spends a good portion of the play crying which, though she endures horrific treatment at the hands of a gang of middle-aged men and is fobbed off by police, feels superficial after a time and lacks character development. Tahirah Sharif as her new friend Katie is only in the first and last scenes set in the present that frame the abuse flashbacks, has much more depth. Phaldut Sharma is wonderfully despicable as AJ, the man who initially recruits Tia and keeps her bound to the unseen gang. Sharma also doubles as down-at-heel detective Simon who is not able to save her. More contrast between Simon and AJ wouldn’t go amiss, especially as Simon is only in one scene that Cooke dominates by crying.
Davies’ script has a simple and formulaic, but effective, structure that doesn’t interfere with the message; the gaps in time are reasonably spaced and spare the audience too much horror – but perhaps this is a bad thing? In the time he does give us, Davies manipulates audience emotions as much as AJ manipulates Tia. Again, this isn’t necessarily a negative what with the impact the show seeks to create. And the impact is a strong one. Sniffles and tears abound with unrestrained expressions of horror. In a particularly graphic scene, my normally sturdy stomach heaves at Cooke’s bloody body shakes in fear as she described to AJ what one of the men did to her. Tia’s appropriately desperate actions that land her in a wheelchair are also horrifying. With stark, bright lighting and an audience on four sides of the stage, being forced to experience audience expression in response to the action magnifies the experience.
After this seventy-minute show, I feel like I’d been put through an emotional wringer and need to lie down in a dark room for awhile. Despite the shortcomings in the script, it abounds with impact – as it should. As well as fostering awareness and understanding, Firebird is a promising piece of new writing with a couple of great performances that unveils the unimaginable horror of child sexual exploitation.