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Firebird (Trafalgar Studios)

Following a sold out run at Hampstead Downstairs, Firebird transfers to Trafalgar Studios 2

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Phadlut Sharma (AJ) and Callie Cook (Tia)
© Robert Day

How could it have happened? That was a question most of us surely asked when the horrific scale and detail of the Rochdale child sexual abuse scandal unfurled in 2012. Phil Davies' short, sharp, and appropriately nasty debut play dares to imagine.

Fourteen-year-old Tia is certainly a victim: troubled, disadvantaged, dispossessed, whatever polite euphemism we're meant to use for having been dealt a terrible hand by life. She's out late one school night in a Rochdale kebab shop, soaked through by rain because she can't afford a coat, and in no rush to get back to her sink estate. Tia is gobby and rude to an older Asian man, AJ, who laughs at her jokes and buys her chips.

Of course it's all bluster; she's hugely vulnerable, and Davies deftly charts the development of her relationship with AJ from flirtatious banter to gut-turning financial and emotional dependency. Tia is taken advantage of in ways that are harrowing to watch or hear tell of; one scene of blood-stained desperation, as Tia bounces off the walls of the grubby flat AJ has her locked in for group sex, is absolutely eviscerating.

Callie Cook, an astonishing young actress who made her professional debut in the show when it was at Hampstead Downstairs last year, gives a vanity-free performance thick with drool and spit and snot and tears. Tia is burning up with energy, jumping on the spot with pure frustration, chewing at her knuckles compulsively; they must be raw by the end of each night.

There could be a queasiness to watching a young woman put through hell like that; Firebird runs risk of being abuse-porn, of revelling in victimhood. Luckily, Davies' writing also brims with a fierce energy - Tia actually really is very funny - and Cook finds both swagger and tenderness. Things may get a little too soggy and shrieky in the very final scenes, but this is still a blistering performance.

Phadlut Sharma is excellent as AJ - at first, you almost believe he's really seen something in this difficult firebrand. He also - spoiler alert - plays a policeman, in a wince-making piece of doubling. The actual girls in the Rochdale sex rings, we know, felt policemen ignored or even blamed them. Edward Hall's firmly directed production gives the audience Tia's point-of-view in this: every man looks the same - literally - and is just as likely to hurt her.

The inspector at first seems just tired at the end of a long day, overly officious. Yet his increasingly judgemental stance towards her, and the complete lack of support for Tia, are wearyingly believable.

If this all sounds hard-going - yep, it is. But Firebird does have a flicker of light. The action is bookended by scenes of Tia being pushed in a wheelchair by Katie, who's just moved to Rochdale from London. Tahirah Sharif's melting-centred performance is all bright-eyed innocent next to Tia. "Damaged goods," the latter calls herself bitterly, shortly before the scene hurtles towards more horror - Hall certainly knows how to keep things going at a thriller-ish pace.

Katie and Tia's friendship seems unlikely, to be honest, and is already fractious, defensive. But there's just a flicker there, the tiniest flame of hope, that Katy may help Tia rise again, phoenix-like.

Firebird runs at Trafalgar Studios 2 until 19 March.

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