by Meredith Jones Russell
In this semi-autobiographical tale of a working-class Black kid who gets in to a prestigious grammar school, writer and performer Daniel Ward is an insanely likeable and undeniably talented focus. His character, Bird, draws us immediately into his story with warmth and charm, accompanied by original grime and hip-hop tunes.
What starts off as funny, with hysterical parodies of posh rugger buggers at his new school trying to adopt elements of his speech and movement, quickly becomes more pointed. Bird is able to fit in to his new surroundings only as an “acceptable Black”, and tragically and inevitably his two worlds start to collide.
Ward’s performance, showing Bird’s transition from an enthusiastic, naïve 10-year-old to an angry, jaded teen is superb. He is ably supported by the rest of the cast, who through beautifully timed verbal, musical and physical interjections help him capture both the hilarity and difficulty of being one of just two black children in an entire year group. The movement sequences, whether dance or fight, are tightly choreographed and performed to heighten both comedy and drama in equal measure, showing Bird’s struggle between a new environment he does not fit into and an old one that gives him no opportunity.
However, at other points, the piece loses focus. Some of the songs are real showstoppers, progressing action and character development. Others others are too lyrically weak to avoid slowing the pace right down. Similarly, some lines which are meant to be powerful make little sense. “There is no one more racist than someone of their own race” requires another two lines to explain it.
Meanwhile, the use of the original Canary and the Crow fable (with its moral that the crow, who cries loudly, gets everything it wants, while the unfortunate canary, who sings beautifully, dies unrewarded) hardly seems to fit the subject matter. The second version told later in the play, when the smug, entitled canary, whose song sounds good, loses out to the admittedly less refined crow, who nonetheless squawks a story of substance and soul, is infinitely more clearly related to the plot, and it’s slightly baffling that this isn’t the only version of the story used.
Indeed, this second version is also a better metaphor for the play itself. While it may not always sound flawless and beautiful, the heart of the piece, personified by Ward’s warm and genuine performance, is undeniable, and the last five minutes pack a powerful emotional punch that more than makes up for other inconsistencies.
The Canary and the Crow runs through 25 August.
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