*Editor’s note – I will be reviewing plays throughout the next year. I applied for, and got accepted onto, a new theatre critic course, funded by the wonderful people at Middle Child. Also, I know things have been quiet on the site; I can now confidently say that dissertations don’t write themselves. Once it is handed in, things will pick up here. Thank you for your support and patience. Anyways, here’s my first review: ‘The Canary and the Crow’, currently finishing a successful tour of Edinburgh Fringe. Hope you enjoy*
I’ll start here: The Canary and the Crow is an excellent piece of gig theatre. The interplay between music and theatre is skilfully done and Laurie Jameson and Rachel Barnes work overtime, playing a number of different characters and instruments. It’s also very funny. I would happily pay to hear Jameson, playing a schoolmaster (among many other roles) say ‘rugger’ for the rest of the year. Daniel Ward, the writer, plays the protagonist, simply called ‘The Bird’, a young black boy from a single parent household, who has been awarded a scholarship to a prestigious private school. I couldn’t stop looking at The Bird’s feet. More specifically, the way that he couldn’t stand still. He had the energy of a teenager and was fully convincing in the role.
How I feel about The Canary and the Crow is entirely wrapped up in how I feel about the character of Snipes. Or is it wrapped up in how I feel about Nigel ‘Prez’ Taylor, the performer that plays him? I’m not sure. As I entered the theatre, garage and grime music were playing and Prez was exhorting the audience to take their seats, stamp their feet, dance and prepare for a good time. His energy and enthusiasm were infectious, and I settled into the performance. At what point he stopped being Prez and started being Snipes was difficult to discern. And I’m not sure if that’s a problem or not.
In Hull, Prez is a bit of a local legend, working with the successful ‘Beats Bus’, an enterprise that was captured in Sean McAllister’s peerless documentary A Northern Soul. Snipes starts the play as a fifteen-year-old that is excited for The Bird, as he finds out he has been accepted into the school. Snipes recognises the opportunity that The Bird has (an opportunity that contrasts with his own lack) and plays the role of an older friend perfectly: he’s pleased but warns him: ‘Don’t fuck this up’.
As the play goes on, we see these two characters drift apart – Snipes goes from being a guide to the younger boy to asking him if he can help him find work – before being brought back together in an act of violence near the end. And this is where I struggle to reconcile my feelings about the play. The Snipes at the beginning doesn’t seem to be the same as the Snipes at the end and so his actions seem incongruous.
Actually, no, that’s not it.
His actions weren’t where the struggle lay for me. It was in his language. Specifically, his use of the n-word. When I asked Ward about this is in the Q and A after the performance, he mentioned wanting to be authentic and not shying away from language that some of the people that he grew up around had used. I have no issue with that, but the way that Snipes (or was it Prez?) was presented made his language choice seem jarring. I get the desire to ‘keep it real’, but this choice achieved the opposite. The Bird makes the point that ‘ambition without opportunity’ creates problems and that phrase could serve as a tagline for Snipes. I wonder if that one line is being asked to do too much heavy lifting when it came to his character development.
Or maybe I’m the issue. Maybe I struggle because I know all too well the difficulties of growing up as the ‘black face in the white space’. I recognised myself in Snipes as much as I did in The Bird. Either way, the n-word momentarily made me check out. That’s a real shame, because in every other respect this is a really excellent piece of theatre.