In February/March, Trafalgar Studios hosted a production called ‘Firebird’ by Phil Davies, produced by Tim Johanson and Hampstead Theatre Productions in assocation with The Children’s Society. The show dealt with the awful and complex topic of child sexual exploitation, and played alongside the Children’s Society’s #SeriouslyAwkward campaign, which aims to raise awareness of the issue.
Two of our Youth Board members attended the hard-hitting production, and were so impressed that they decided to expand on it for Tender’s blog. This week, Youth Board member Catherine Uttley reviews the production:
Firebird was powerful, moving and brilliantly uncomfortable at times; my strongest thought leaving the theatre was that more people should see it. The performance vigorously threw the spotlight on a complex issue that is too often hidden and too often simplified.
Firebird follows the story of fourteen year-old Tia. In the small, intimate theatre of Trafalgar Studios, it was effortless to become totally immersed in her world, complimented by the entrancing performances of the three main actors. Tia is at first presented as a mouthy, full of attitude teenager, who enjoys getting drunk and nastily belittling her friend Katie and her ‘childish’ games. Yet, as we learn of Tia’s past – being groomed by the slimy, deceptively charismatic AJ and cruelly abused by multiple other men – we develop a much more profound understanding of Tia’s identity. The play impressively made you question the quick judgements you might make about a girl like Tia.
The list of emotions I felt watching the play was endless and sometimes overwhelming. Scenes of Tia covered in blood having been raped and attacked and of her begging to escape AJ’s flat were particularly emotive and difficult to watch. The grooming scene in the kebab shop, where AJ first meets Tia, was authentic and well researched. It provoked strong feelings of anger and disgust towards AJ and his conniving game, whilst demonstrating how a manipulative use of flattery, humour and gift-giving could easily entice a young girl with little experience of kindness into an emotional bond. The play makes clear that Tia lacks a loving family background, making AJ’s deceptive use of affection especially cruel, and sadly, more effective. After leaving Tia to be raped, attacked and locked in a flat, we see AJ shower her with false words of care. These are so emotionally abusive that Tia’s initial sense of outrage disappears and she proclaims dependence and hopeless devotion to AJ. As the scene develops, it becomes strikingly clear how completely his manipulation has destroyed Tia’s sense of worth, hope and individuality, enhancing our appreciation of the drastic effect of grooming and sexual abuse.
When Tia finally escapes AJ and arrives at the police office, she is broken in all senses. Hysterical and now using a wheelchair due to her physical injuries, Tia pleads an officer to believe her story of abuse. At this point, I craved for the police officer to be compassionate and help Tia. On reflection, I am glad that the play instead offered me a sharp sense of reality. The officer blames Tia for her situation, reflecting the reality that many victims of abuse are wrongly made to feel responsible. I particularly liked the use of the same actor playing AJ now playing the police officer, highlighting that in Tia’s perspective he represented the same dominating male character. This made it easy to empathise with how difficult Tia would find trusting the police officer and talking to him about her abuse. In this context, the officer’s accusatory attitude becomes even more shocking.
Perhaps surprisingly, the scene that struck the strongest chord and reduced me to tears was when Tia’s friend Katie invites her for a family tea at the end of the play. Katie’s offer was a simple act of kindness that for many symbolises a normal part of childhood. Yet, for Tia the offer is so alien from her world of abuse and cruelty that she is totally overwhelmed by it. As a result of the kindness, Tia quickly begins to feel guilty for putting her friend at risk of AJ’s abuse and begs her to leave her alone. Tia is desperate to protect Katie’s innocence, naivety and most of all her childhood: the things that Tia’s abusers have stolen. It particularly upset me hearing Tia scream how unworthy she was of Katie’s friendship, exclaim that she deserved to die and recognise so plainly the contrast between Katie’s life and her own through the simple offer of family tea. The play showed how easily victims of abuse could be manipulated to facilitate abuse of others against their wishes. The scene also captured how Tia’s experiences had ripped a sense of childhood from her, making us drastically reinterpret the beginning of the play, when Tia refused to play ‘childish’ games.
One key message I took from Firebird was around the meaning of friendship. At Tender, we often discuss the fact that many young people choose to talk to friends before anyone else about abusive relationships. In Firebird, we see that Katie is the only person who truly accepts Tia’s story and offers care and compassion, sticking by her friend despite being pushed away. For me, Katie’s friendship represented hope within Tia’s challenging life. I hope more young people see Firebird and are inspired by Katie’s act.
Next week, we will release the transcript of an interview with Phaldut Sharma who played AJ in the production, with questions written by Youth Board member Kaleya Baxe.