Etching a bleak portrait of childhood, Three Birds hangs precariously between a black comedy and a naturalistic living-room drama, ultimately resisting definition. We witness three siblings, Tiana, Tionne and Tanika coping with life on the estate, in the supposed absence of parents. It is not initially clear if Tiana, played by Michaela Coel, is one of the children or in fact a legal guardian – assertive and mature looking as she is. Okoh’s plot seeps in one clue at a time. The decapitated chicken on the coffee table and cryptic Amazon deliveries appear to facilitate Tionne’s innocent, if slightly quirky, teenage obsessions. But, these quirks become indications of a uniquely dark, family secret – one that must be kept if the children have any hope of staying together.
Susan Wokoma beautifully captures the spirit of Tanika, an overbearingly enthusiastic and wildly imaginative child
The brilliant set design presents a realistic, soulless, council flat in Lewisham, complete with drafty doors for secrets to lurk behind and sinks to pee in. However, the outside world, represented by larger-than-life, satirical characters, soon peers in. Ms Jenkins, ingeniously crystallised by Claire Brown, and Dr FeelGood, rendered fiercely by Lee Oakes, force the play, bizarrely, into the realm of the absurd. For how long can the family’s secret remain hidden with a wildly erratic dealer reaching in through the windows and a patronising primary school teacher making routine investigations? Susan Wokoma beautifully captures the spirit of Tanika, an overbearingly enthusiastic and wildly imaginative child, who clings to Ms Jenkins – with her text-book guide to responsibility and her therapeutic sock-puppet – in the hope that she will be, like Matlida, rescued her from her own life.
The play’s weakness lies with its attempt to combine reality with the heightened, surreal features of a black comedy. Ultimately, because of this awkward dichotomy and the consequential cross-purposes of the actors, the play is neither funny nor touching; it is at odds with itself. It comes, at times, incredibly close to breaking your heart, but these moments are swiftly averted by comical interjections which feel uncomfortably inappropriate and prevent the audience from capturing any pertinence. The final scenes attempt to normalise the events and emulsify the two worlds, but the result is an over-long denouement and a sofa full of characters we neither recognise nor understand.
*** 3 stars
Runs until April 30th