The Canary and the Crow (Arcola Theatre, Studio 1)

Returning to London after a successful run at the Edinburgh Fringe last year, this grime and hip-hop inspired piece of gig theatre by Middle Child, written by Daniel Ward, proves to be a thoughful, challenging and provoking piece about a young black kid’s journey in a world where he becomes “acceptable” to whites.

We first meet The Bird on the day he gets into an exclusive boys’ school on a scholarship, one of two black boys and a handful of Asians in a space dominated by “posh white boys”. He’s the only one from a working-class background and initially finds it hard to fit in, feeling provoked by the other boys who don’t understand him.

The company of four – Ward himself, Nigel Taylor (aka Prez 96, co-composer), Laurie Jamieson and Rachel Barnes – play all the characters in the story and join in with their own party pieces throughout. Building the energy is as important as the message. Even a few technical issues with microphones was woven into the stage action without bringing down that communal spirit.

Daniel Ward and Laurie Jamieson, The Canary and the Crow
Daniel Ward and Laurie Jamieson, The Canary and the Crow

Jamieson’s headmaster and posh pupil Richard make an impact (“he’s scum, you’re not that kind of black”l, and Taylor’s desperate Snipes stuck in a cycle zero hour contracts and mugging rich whites is very effective.

The Canary and the Crow uses the common myths of the two birds (the cage, the trees, the contest) alongside events from Ward’s semi-autobiographical script to give us a pause to think about our unconscious bias against people of a different colour or race.

The depiction of a computer studies class which allows The Bird’s classmates to anonymously post racist tropes to a chat room hits hard. In an English language class black vernacular is belittled by the teacher (well-played by Barnes).

Nigel Taylor, The Canary and the Crow
Nigel Taylor, The Canary and the Crow

Ward introduces the piece with a story about two unnamed “famous black actors” – one who had a breakdown because of the strain of having to present a “respectable” veneer in a showbusiness world dominated by whites, one giving a talk to the BAME students at drama school to explore with them “what is it like to be black [in that setting]”.

The Canary and the Crow is Ward”s considered answer to this question: ironically press night was dominated by white faces in the audience, but if it wasn’t our story and our direct experience, we were listening. The music, rough, loud, brash connected with the crow’s cries and cackles. It connected with our souls, as the song contest fable says.

Daniel Ward, The Canary and the Crow
Daniel Ward, The Canary and the Crow

This is a show of power and chutzpah with the music at its heart. There is nothing superficial about this show, which leaves its audience with a lot to consider about a world often viewed through a prism of one colour alone. Ward is not afraid to say his piece. In a closing coda he tells us “this is my art, I challenge you to tell me it’s not relevant”.

The Canary and the Crow continues at the Arcola until 8 February 2020, before touring. It is directed with a firm hand by Paul Smith, written by Daniel Ward, and co-composed by Prez 96 and James Frewer.

Production photography by The Other Richard.

LouReviews received a complimentary ticket to see The Canary and the Crow.