Theatre reviews: E8 | The Canary And The Crow, Pleasance Dome and Roundabout @ Summerhall, Edinburgh

E8 | The Canary And The Crow, Pleasance Dome (Venue 23) and Roundabout @ Summerhall (Venue 26)
E8 | The Canary And The Crow, Pleasance Dome (Venue 23) and Roundabout @ Summerhall (Venue 26)
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Being a working-class kid in East London has never been the easiest of lives.

E8, Pleasance Dome * * * *

The Canary And The Crow, Roundabout @ Summerhall * * * *

But in this age of growing wealth gaps, rising knife crime and families trapped in low-wage, zero-hours jobs, the tensions surrounding young people trying to navigate their way through their teens are enough to drive too many over the edge, into open conflict with the society around them.

Marika Mckennell’s powerful new four-handed drama E8 – produced by North Wall of Oxford, in association with the Pleasance – is set in a PRU, or pupil referral unit, where students are sent who are excluded from mainstream school because of bad behaviour, ill health, or other issues and the story revolves around the relationship between Polly, a kindly and liberal-minded head teacher who is about to leave the school to pursue her academic work, and Bailey, a desperately troubled teenage girl whose abusive behaviour and language towards Polly is shocking, but who is obviously – at another level – acting out her profound hurt, anger and alarm at being “abandoned”, as she sees it, by one of the few people who has ever shown her any real concern or kindness.

In Ria Parry’s fast-moving and completely absorbing production, Parys Jordan and Harry McMullen provide strong support as younger teacher Mo – a former pupil made good – and Bailey’s fellow student Ryan. It’s around the dialogue between Tina Chiang’s Polly and Alice Vilanculo’s brilliant, furious and poignant Bailey, though, that this drama revolves, as Bailey’s life hurtles towards crisis, and Polly – almost overwhelmed by the pressures of the job, in a system ever more bereft of resources – cannot even find the charger to fire up the school laptop, and find out whether Bailey’s desperate plea for help from social services has been answered.

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If Bailey’s drama is acted out in real time in Mckennell’s intense play, Daniel Ward’s The Canary And The Crow, at the Roundabout in Summerhall, takes a much longer view, in what’s essentially an autobiographical study of the teenage years of a young black boy from a poor housing estate who unexpectedly wins a scholarship to a very posh day school in another part of London.

Produced by Middle Child of Hull, directed by Paul Smith, and presented in brilliantly inventive style by a cast of four including Ward himself and two classical musicians, The Canary And The Crow is essentially a play with songs which uses every means available in the Roundabout – monologue, intense dialogue, old and new bird-legends, grime- and hip-hop inspired songs and sequences, and also the prestigious musical sounds of the classical tradition – to capture a sense of the fiercely complex and contested cultural and social landscape through which Dan travels.

Throughout his teenage years, he faces both a real danger of becoming a focus for the anger of his community, and the chronic difficulty of demonstrating his ability to master “white” academic education, without morphing into a kind of “acceptable” black person, seen as “not like the others”. And in telling his story with such honesty, vigour, invention and intelligence, Daniel Ward pulls off the rare double feat of making clear the sometimes tragic complexity of those tensions, while also offering a glimpse of how they might begin to be resolved, through sheer creative energy, exuberance and nerve.

JOYCE MCMILLAN

E8 Until 25 August

The Canary And The Crow Until 25 August

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