Far from a Sunny Afternoon, Firebird, a dark, eye-opening account of the Rochdale child-trafficking scandal, returns to the stage. Originally a sell-out run Downstairs at the Hampstead Theatre last year, Edward Hall restages another of his theatrical triumphs at the Trafalgar Studios.
Tia, a mouthy and impressionable teenager is all too easily charmed by AJ, a slick, charismatic devil in disguise. Little is said about Tia’s background, save for a few cutting remarks about a broken family and an incompetent foster mother. Overwhelmed by AJ’s kindness and flashy Mercedes car, she willingly takes his hand and steps into a brutal world of sexual abuse. Propelled into the future, we have a blood-stained, screaming Tia smashing her fists against a door, imprisoned in a sterile room littered with vodka bottles and stained bedsheets. It need not be said what has become of her.
Based on eye-witness testimony and in his very own hometown, Rochdale, the writer Phil Davies puts together an unnerving authenticity in his professional debut. Anyone who follows the news can see that he doesn’t wander far from the shocking headlines we are all too familiar with. That being said, the truth isn’t so harshly lit that it becomes unbearable. The plot is clear and organized with upsetting realism and allows for an honest development of the bond between AJ, Phadlut Sharma, and Tia, Callie Cooke. It is hard to imagine a different outcome. Cooke captures with striking veracity the emotional turmoil of young Tia to the point that she breaks the illusion of performance. When Tia sobs whilst being questioned by Detective Simon, Cooke’s acting is so raw and true to life that the audience shares in an immense sense of disbelief that this actually happens. Nor can you believe that this is her professional debut. Parallels between the assaults of AJ and the relentless questioning of Detective Simon epitomize the very broken system that has let these girls down. The touching rapport between her and Katie, Tahirah Sharif, also shows a more empowering side of girlhood and sensibility, offering a glimmer of hope, if indeed a little blinkered, of a better future for them.
The performance succeeds in urging you to acknowledge the truth that nobody wants to admit – this is the reality and not enough is being done. Working alongside The Children’s Society, a national charity supporting children at risk of harm, Firebird urges you to join the campaign against sexual exploitation and child-trafficking.