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Camilla Whitehill’s play Where Do Little Birds Go? had a brilliantly-received run at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2015, and Londoners can now see it at the Old Red Lion Theatre, just above the Old Red Lion Pub near Angel tube. Half of the play is set in a pub, so the location of the black box space feels particularly apt for that reason; it’s also a production after which you may find yourself in need of a stiff drink. For, given how short it is—just an hour; I read the playscript in the fifteen minutes between arriving and being admitted upstairs—it packs a hell of a punch.
Jessica Butcher plays Lucy Fuller, narrating the whole drama as a one-woman show. It’s hard work: she’s the only person on stage the whole time, but she reacts physically to the presence of other people the audience can’t see, people who exist only in her memory. It’s an extremely effective way of making the past visible within the present moment. Butcher’s energy never flags. Even in her quieter, more reflective moments, she simply turns the volume dial down without losing the focus of the performance. The only moment during which she didn’t have my attention completely was the very beginning of the show. It opens with her singing, loudly, a number from “Charlie Girl”. It’s hard to sing loudly in a confined space to people only a few feet away from you, especially if you don’t have something like operatic training to carry you past the human instinct that tells you to lower your voice, scale it back. I wondered at moments whether that instinct was clamouring in Butcher’s head. But she very quickly enraptured the audience, who were smiling and applauding within minutes of the first note, and she got me too, by the end of the song.
Where Do Little Birds Go is not a light romp. It is partly about the Kray twins, and anyone who has seen the Tom Hardy film Legend, also about the Krays, and felt inclined to romanticise them, ought to be made to watch this play. Lucy’s terrible vulnerability—the only person she knows in London is her uncle Keith, who is a good man but who, without wishing to spoil the plot, isn’t always around—and her ambition to be a West End star combine to place her in a prime position for exploitation. When the Krays kidnap her from the job they’ve given her in a nightclub, and bring her to a flat containing the escaped murderer Frank Mitchell, she already knows that she might die there, and that she has no choice but to do her job.
Plays, much more than any art form I can think of, are about speech. This play is an hour-long monologue and Whitehall’s writing is impeccable: there are little touches of wit and dry sarcasm, and there are moments so hideous that they are conveyed in one sentence, then left to hang in the air. The combination of Whitehill’s words and Butcher’s interpretation is unbelievably powerful. Where Do Little Birds Go addresses enormous issues—sexism, cruelty, the balance of power—lightly but surely. Whitehill doesn’t belabour her points, but she makes sure that they are made. You should walk out of the performance with shaking hands.
Where Do Little Birds Go? continues at the Old Red Lion Theatre until November 26. Tickets are £15 (£12.50 concessions).