Review: ★★★★★ The Canary and the Crow, Arcola Theatre

Review: ★★★★★ The Canary and the Crow, Arcola Theatre

The Canary and the Crow is a piece of gig theatre, mixing grime and spoken word with elements of singing and more classical-style instrumental music. It presents the experiences of a black boy from a single-parent family who gains a scholarship to a private grammar school, starting from when he gets the letter telling him he passed the test. This production deals with complicated political and social issues in a way that is engaging and enjoyable to watch.

Writer and performer Daniel Ward uses his own experiences to create an intensely personal semi-autobiographical piece. He is charming and charismatic, immediately winning over the audience with his portrayal of the exuberant and earnest perspective of a 10-year-old who matures throughout the performance. Rachel Barnes, Laurie Jameson and Nigel Taylor play a variety of different characters who make an appearance, as well as providing the music. Barnes and Jameson stand out in a variety of posh roles, with exaggerated accents and mannerisms. Taylor is heartbreaking as Snipes, the cool, older kid from where Ward grew up, who perfectly showcases the tragedy of having drive and ambition in an environment where it can never flourish.

The show is organised by the main character’s progression through school but also by the subjects he is taught, all of which have some bearing on his position as one of the only black boys in the school, such as the English lesson on the subject of the slang that the rest of his class picks up from him. Ward also structures the narrative around stories and poems about the canary and the crow. These recurring themes of what it feels like to be an outsider and the consequences of changing yourself to fit in weave through the plot. He tackles this subject from many angles, not just the problems that the main character faces but also how it affects his friends he grew up with and the new friends he makes at school.

The music is what really makes this production stand out. Composed by Prez 96 and James Frewer, it uses two cellos, a piano, a backing track and the voices of all four performers to bring in layers of meaning and emotion. The contrast of grime and Taylor’s raps with the classical music and Barnes’s operatic singing style brings the cultural divide to the forefront.

The energy of this production never falters, and the change from the humorous portrayal of minor cultural differences, like playing rugby instead of football to the serious issues that are raised later on happens imperceptibly. The show loses some of its comedy element towards the end, becoming slightly darker and more intense. However, this tone perfectly matches the progression of the issues that Ward deals with, and his captivating style of storytelling is maintained throughout.

This is a simple production in terms of staging. The lighting design matches the concept of the mixture of gig and theatre production, and accentuates the most important moments effectively. There is no set to speak of, it is performed in the round, partially in the style of a monologue but also including the audience at key moments, emphasising the gig feel. The simplicity of the production makes it feel very authentic, as does the introduction provided by Ward at the start of the show and his closing remarks at the end, which reiterate the very personal nature of this production, making it feel all the more poignant.

Emma Grimsley

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