The Canary & the Crow by Daniel Ward. The Arcola Theatre, 24 Ashwin Street, London E* to 8 February 2020. 4****. William Russell.

The Canary and the Crow
By Daniel Ward. Music by Prez 96 & James Frewer.
The Arcola Theatre, 24 Ashwin Street, London E8 5DL to 8 February 2020.
Mon-Sat 7.30pm. Mat Sat 2.30 & 5 February.
Runs 90 mins. No interval.
TICKETS: 020 7503 1646
Review: William Russell 20 January

This stimulating and hugely entertain piece of gig theatre arrives garlanded with praise from initially the Brighton Fringe where it won the award for excellence and then the Edinburgh Fringe where it received reviews – all fully justified. Daniel Ward plays The Bird, a teenage black boy who gets a scholarship to a posh school, the kind where they play rugby not football. It is a place which will open doors into a world in which he really does not belong, but one which will offer opportunities he would not otherwise have. For The Bird it is a learning experience just as it is for those already there and it makes for exciting and enthralling theatre as it has been conceived as word and song and involves the audience from the start with the cast urging people to wave hands and gesticulate as the two actor musicians provide the necessary sound. This sort of in your face stuff is tricky, but they get away with it and the virtually all white audience – the only black person I could see other than the two on stage appeared to be a member of the Arcola staff – responded with enthusiasm. But were they learning anything or just enjoying what was in party a pretty good gig because Ward has a lot worth saying and listening to about how people like him fit into the society they live in. It is a society which has changed drastically over the last several years, probably those in which he grew up. It is very funny, touching at times as black and white struggle to reach an understanding, a modus Vivendi which allows respect on both sides – and it does not necessarily follow.
The posh school has all the people you would expect, the good teachers, the pompous head, the boys who resent this cuckoo in their white nest, the ones who struggle to accept him as one of them, while never quite managing to escape from the fact that he is nothing of the kind – and it works both ways. The Crow is by no means submissive. He fights back. There is also the counterpoint of Snipes, the black boy who has not escaped his environs with the aid of a scholarship and seems doomed to a different world of work altogether.
Opening night had some technical problems and Ward and Nigel Taylor, who plays Snipes, were forced to use only one hand mike which did create problems with the clarity of some of what was said – bellowing over the backing music, even if only keyboards and a cello, is not necessarily going to work all the time. But the message came over. At the end the Pig has to decide who won the singing contest, the Canary or the Crow – he chooses the Crow. The reason is the point of the show. It is part of that fight for a fair and equal society and has been staged by a company desperate to change the world through theatre according to the director Paul Smith – if the audience colour mix changes during the run then the fight to do that are happening. A press night one is never typical and liberal thinking, so they think; white folk having a good gig are only part of the necessary equation.
But the mission of Middle Child, where it originated, is to have a good night out with big ideas and this is certainly both of those. Ward says the thoughts can come later and he could be right – hopefully they do.
Rachel Barnes: The Canary, Keyboard Warrior & other parts.
Laurie Jamieson: TheCage, Keyboard Warrior 2 & other parts.
Nigel Taylor: The Cage, Snipes/Pig.
Daniel Ward: The Bird.

Director: Paul Smith.
Co-composer: Prez 96.
Co-composer & Musical Director: James Frewer.
Designer: Natalie Young.
Lighting Designer: Jess Addinsell
Movement Director: Ryan Harston.
Production Photographs: The Other Richard.

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