Firebird is Phil Davies's debut play and deals with the difficult issues surrounding the sexual exploitation of a fourteen year old girl called Tia, from Rochdale in the North of England. It was originally presented in a programme I run at Hampstead Theatre called 'Hampstead Downstairs' which previews only unperformed plays. I can safely say that it is one of the most powerful pieces I have ever directed as Phil has been utterly uncompromising in his depiction of the struggles of his central character. Child sexual exploitation is a big problem in Britain with many high profile cases hitting the press. The ones we read about are unfortunately just the tip of the iceberg. So what does a play about this subject hope to achieve? First and foremost, it is a brilliantly written thriller with a non-linear time structure which keeps you guessing right until the end. Audiences sit literally on the edge of their seats. Then, it is also something else: a powerful example of how theatre can stimulate debate by dramatising difficult, sometimes even taboo subjects.
When I first read Firebird, I was immediately struck by how successful Phil had been in his handling of an issue rarely dealt with on stage. My belief is that a good play has the potential to put an audience inside the emotional experience of the protagonists, whilst sparing them the burden of having to deal with the real fallout of whatever trauma the drama depicts. Firebird is particularly successful in this respect, as, despite its tough subject matter, it never resorts to cheap sensationalism. Instead it follows the Greek model and sets all the most extreme violence offstage, allowing us to experience only the aftermath. The real violence of the play is left to that most powerful of tools: our own imagination.
Rehearsals were intense but good, and having read as much research material as I could, I felt we were making progress. The one huge challenge was accurately rendering the behaviour of a fourteen year old girl who falls victim to the most horrific sexual violence. The Children's Society were invited to an early performance so I could gauge how we were doing by getting feedback from professionals who worked with people like Tia every day. They were unequivocal in their support, which was a huge relief, and so began a partnership that has taken us to the West End and the Trafalgar Studios. The play is now being used by The Children's Society as an awareness raising tool, helping them to lobby the government to improve laws aimed at protecting vulnerable teenagers.
In this time of public service cuts to social care in Britain, Firebird is also a stark reminder of how under-resourced the police and social services are, especially when working in the area of child sexual exploitation. It is an uncomfortable experience to watch, but it is also funny, and, finally, full of hope. Some audience members do leave the theatre as they find the experience too intense; that is understandable as it is not a gentle story. People can often be breathtakingly indifferent to the harsher cruelties of the world in which we live and I make no apologies for what we've done or how we've done it. I also have no doubt that if Hampstead Downstairs, a programme that 'previews' new work without a formal press opening, didn't exist, then perhaps Phil's play might never have been seen on stage. Our Downstairs Studio is set up in a way that allows us complete programming freedom. Tickets are cheap (£5 in the first week of each run) and there is no pressure on us to make money. Whilst most productions sell out, we can't make it pay and it isn't expected to. This sets us big fundraising challenges, but with the help of genuine philanthropy it allows us to run a small theatre free from the usual agendas that drive other spaces. As a result, we can explore more extreme plays like Firebird.
Despite its harshness, in the end the play does leave you with hope: the hope of survival through the gesture of friendship. I do urge you to see it. At its best, live theatre can genuinely influence and affect how we 'feel' the world. Firebird certainly does this.
Firebird runs at The Trafalgar Studios until 19 March. Tickets from £10.