There’s a certain intrigue and energy in the opening of Janice Okoh‘s Three Birds. In a compact council flat in Lewisham, three siblings are attempting to decapitate an already deceased chicken. We don’t know why. But this macabre atmosphere permeates throughout this black comedy, winner of the Bruntwood Prize in 2011.

Desperately clutching onto some semblance of the life they know, teenagers Tiana, Tionne and nine-year old Tanika are harbouring a secret. Money is tight and aside from a line of clothes strewn across the sofa, ready to be sold on e-bay, there is no sign of the mother who appears to have abandoned them. After failing to decapitate the chicken, Tionne barricades himself in the bathroom. Self-assured Tanika refuses to eat the dry chicken and has to be placated by the eldest Tiana with dreams of riches, grandeur and a refrigerator that plays Justin Beiber when opened.

As the story unfolds, we witness “selective mute” Tionne becoming increasingly interested in gadgets, questionable concoctions and further experiments on chickens, whilst Tiana struggles with the parental role that has been enforced upon her. Tanika’s quirky teacher Ms. Jenkins, and coarse drug dealer Dr. Feelgood are the sole intruders into the world being preserved by the children.

Under the direction of Sarah Frankcom, Okoh draws the audience into their domain, where darkness creeps in like an omniscient shadow. She adeptly plants clues into the plot, drip feeding the audience until a shocking revelation turns both the plot and the stomach. To divulge further would steal the impetus of the production, so I’ll stop there, except to say it’s not for the faint-hearted.

Louie Whitmore’s minimalist set, containing only a sofa and TV, against a backdrop of drowning cream walls, is the ideal canvas for the horrific disclosure. Susan Wokoma excels as the smarting Tanika, setting the pace and encapsulating the full, abounding energy of the nine year old; no easy feat for an adult actor. Comic value is added by the interfering Ms. Jenkins, (played by Claire Brown) who, supported by a Rastafarian sock puppet, performs her way through each challenging situation.

Okoh’s ear for dialogue is evident and she conveys the fragility of the children who find themselves in dire circumstances with warmth. But there are many issues at play here that could benefit from being teased out further.

Three Birds is laced with originality and promise, but feels choppy in places and calls out for tighter execution.

Three Birds, Bush Theatre

(Originally published by What’s on Stage, Mar ’13)

– Amardeep Sohi