Janice Okoh’s play Bruntwood Prize-winning play Three Birds is a brutal critique of the many issues surrounding children who are forced to grow up too soon. Tiana, Tionne and Tanika are struggling to keep their family together despite pressure from within and outside their down-at-heel Lewisham flat. As the few adults in their lives intrude and interfere in their abruptly independent existence the children seem unable or unwilling to see the difference between fantasy and reality, with horrible results.
Okoh’s play clearly draws on real-life stories about childhood sexuality, deprivation and abandonment. This realism ensures that, however outlandish the children’s behaviour appears, the story never oversteps the line between plausible nastiness and something more unrealistic. It’s a fine line, though. As dead chickens spurt blood on stage and other unpleasantness looms into view, the children’s emotional numbness to their immediate situation can seem a little too simplistic, albeit still distressing.
The play attacks society’s abandonment of an impoverished underclass, and Okoh uses mordant comedy to force the audience to examine the issues involved. While we laugh at Tanika’s having to piss in the kitchen sink, for example, we’re forced to ask why we should find such indignity a laughing matter. Racism, pederasty and poverty are similarly explored and the comedy is often savage.
The cast put a great deal of energy into negotiating the difficult balance between humour and tragedy. Michaela Coel’s Tiana is brassy and manipulative, but practically oblivious to her share of responsibility for the family’s dire situation. Jahvel Hall captures the tension between Tionne’s pubescent angst and his crushing shyness, playing well against Susan Wokoma’s conceited and daydreaming nine-year-old Tanika. Throughout, Sarah Frankcom’s production makes interesting use of sound, with distant sirens and barking dogs helping to evoke the play’s Lewisham setting.
Okoh and the cast have created an entirely believable family unit – full of love and aspiration but deeply flawed. The family’s divorce from reality is palpable even before the scale of their fantasy becomes clear. They seem never to catch on to the fact that drawn curtains are a poor shield against the outside world.
That outside world does, of course, have to barge into the children’s lives. Tanika’s unconsciously racist teacher (a brilliant performance by Claire Brown) bungles her attempts to win the family’s trust, somehow finding entirely separate ways to let down each of the children. The only person who seems to be dependable is Lee Oakes’s malevolently charming drug dealer. It’s striking that he’s the only character who seems capable of speaking about his own feelings with honesty and eloquence. (It’s a shame, however, that his eloquence is never explained, given how uneasily it sits with his lifestyle.)
Oakes’s character summarises the warped nature of Okoh’s deprived sink estate. There, children find their father figure in the one man who seems able to see their potential, despite his clearly bearing much of the responsibility for their inability to live up to it. Other adults, however well-meaning, either patronise them or abandon them to a life surrounded by drug dealers, thieves and the ever-present threat of complete family breakdown. It’s to Okoh’s credit that this whole story is hard to fit into a single genre. Is it comedy, tragedy or horror? The same question might well be asked of the real situations she’s managed to dramatise so powerfully.