Sherman Artistic Director Rachel O’Riordan again displays her particular skill in working with young people, especially women, and bringing out performances that are spellbinding and disturbing.
In this production with the Royal Exchange Theatre, O’Riordan takes the Sherman Playwright-in-Residence Chandler’s play (winner of the Judges award in the 2013 Bruntwood Prize for Playwriting) and gives it flesh and blood in another studio space, tight, minimalist production that grabs us and shakes our brains around.
As with Iphigenia in Splott, the heart of Bird, is a damaged young woman, Ava, clinging on to wet straws with terrible consequences, trying to find meaning or, at least, some reason for her existence in a grim environment and physically quite literally on the edge of society, teetering on a cliff edge. She has younger friend who is even more vulnerable as she is not just younger but believes,a s she says, if it all gets too much she can fly away.
Iphigenia ended with the unsatisfactory “to the barricades” but in Bird Chandler gives a more darkly realistic series of conclusions for teenager Ava and her 13-year-old friend Tash and also her mum, Claire.
The two young girls are in a seaside care home looking to their futures. On the eve of her 16th birthday, Ava now wants to go home to her mum Claire. For reasons that are only suggested (but obvious) her mum, who had Ava when she was only 16, is reluctant, putting her boyfriend (and her own need for male approbation) before her daughter .
While the relationship between Ava and her mother (a polished performance from Siwan Morris) is the most straight-forward in the play and the final encounter rather predictable, it serves to demonstrate the horrible reality that women make shocking choices and sacrifices to have men in their lives (to give that meaning to their lives).
Tash, realised beautifully by Rosie Sheehy, is a more complex character who repeats stories from her (very recent childhood) about parallel universes (cue flashing light bulbs in the sky) where better lives exist and says if it all gets too much she and Ava will fly away.
The two men we see in the play, others are mentioned but we do not meet them, are a scary taxi driver, Lee, and the gawky teenager boy, Dan. Guy Rhys gives an uncomfortable and worrying portrayal as Lee who is also damaged but we never find out except he has been to prison for six years. Strange Lee meets Ava in his taxi and plies her with alcohol, gifts and having groomed her wants to have her in his complete control. It does seem terrible bad luck that Ava has such grim men in her life (and even worse for Tash). Played by Connor Allen, awkward hormone-fuelled teenager Dan is the character with real appeal, hope and charm which is possibly not what is intended but proves the only spark of light in this dismal world.
Chandler’s play is rather heavy on the avian symbolism, not only in the spoken text which jars at times but also the analogies, references and some of the outcomes. Yet Georgia Henshaw gives such a remarkable performance as the Bird, Ava (the name means birdlike); physically and verbally skittish, nervous, raw and fragile. The entire evening is dependent on her performance and, strong as the rest of the cast is, the evening belongs to this taught powerhouse actress.
Kenny Miller give us a stark set, white tiled walls with two ladders up to a higher level, just two plastic chairs, and that twinkling star-filled heaven and neon tube dance floor for the girls to bop around within created by lighting director Kevin Treacy.
Voices with strong Cardiff accents, from the edge indeed.
It would be great to now see the Sherman and O’Riordan find a script that gives similar voice to the neglected white, working class young male who has so fallen out of fashion.
Perhaps that is an ambition for other directors in another room.
Until May 28.