Posted: 14 March 2016

Writer of Firebird, Phil Davies, discusses the play

Our Seriously Awkward campaign to protect 16 and 17 year olds from exploitation is being backed by Hampstead Theatre, London with their play Firebird. The play sold out fast for its initial run at Hampstead Theatre and is now showing at Trafalgar Studio until 19 March. You can buy tickets on the website.

Here we speak to the writer, Phil Davies, about what inspired him and how he researched the difficult subject matter.

At The Children’s Society, we directly help hundreds of teenagers experiencing sexual exploitation every year. It’s really important work but also a difficult topic to explain to the public. Awareness is still shockingly low about the scale of the problem and how it happens so your play Firebird is incredibly brave and important.  Why did you write a play on this issue?

The first thing that really  drew my attention to the issue was the high profile court case in Rochdale. When the stories started coming out in the media it was a huge surprise.  To see these awful things that had happened in my home town, in places that I knew, was deeply shocking.

It made me look back at my time in school in Rochdale differently.  I remembered girls, maybe 14 year olds, getting into 4x4s at the end of the school day. Now I look back and realise the older guys in these cars could have been perpetrators of sexual exploitation preying on these young teenage girls.  Now I see it in a different way and the alarm bells go off. 

I wanted to really think about that situation and tell the story of teenage girls who had gone through this.

This is your first professional production – it’s incredible that your debut play has been on at Hampstead Theatre Downstairs, directed by Edward Hall.  And now even more people are seeing it throughout the live broadcast with Time Out London. How did you get the play on?

Strangely enough, I think I have National Rail to thank.  I got a copy of the script to Ed and luckily for me there was a problem with his train and he had to take a rail replacement bus service. He had the script in his bag and read it on the journey.

He felt like it was a page turner, a really gripping piece of theatre and a hugely important story that just had to be told. His direction of the play has been incredible. It’s been amazing for me to see it come alive on stage – the cast are simply magnificent in their roles.

We felt that the play was incredibly authentic and reflected what many young people go through. The power dynamic and how the perpetrator uses the victim’s background and vulnerabilities, as well as gifts, alcohol, and false affection to groom her are all common features of sexual exploitation . How did you do your research? 

It was a tricky topic to research because as you would expect with an issue of this kind, it is not possible to directly talk to young people. I developed the plot and theme by looking at court cases, in-depth first person accounts, the media coverage and documentaries. Where I could I spoke with professionals such as staff that work in the care system, teachers, and a QC. I really wanted to get it right because it is such a heavy and important issue.

What’s the most alarming thing you’ve come across in your research for the play and in getting to know this issue?

I read an interview with a teenage girl involved in exploitation who had the courage to speak up about what was happening.

Then, all of a sudden, she started being asked what she had been wearing; she started to feel strange as it slowly dawned on her that people were implying that she might have been bringing this on herself.

The fact that this is still sometimes seen by the police and others as a ‘lifestyle choice’ is completely chilling. As if a terribly vulnerable teenage girl would want to be passed around grown men for abuse. I hope The Children’s Society campaign helps to change this.

How would you sum up the reaction to play throughout the live run at Hampstead Theatre Downstairs? Were you surprised?

I just didn’t know how it would be received. I tend to be quite anxious about these things. I never dreamed it could have such an overwhelmingly positive reaction and that it would go on to have a live broadcast. I looked at my diary the other day and for the last day of the live run I’d written ‘last performance – fingers crossed’ in the hope that it got that far and for some reason the run wouldn’t be shortened!

The same actor plays the perpetrator and the police man – is this something you wrote into the script?

Absolutely, yes. Because the play is about seeing what is happening to the character through her eyes. I wanted the audience to see that given what has happened to her, she sees just another male dominating figure in the policeman. This makes it even harder for her to say what has happened. 

The way she is almost accused in this scene of asking to be abused, rather than seen as a vulnerable young girl who has been exploited, is sadly typical of many cases. I know The Children’s Society is directly trying to address this with the Seriously Awkward campaign and I’m proud to have the play help to be a part of that.

Some people who have watched Firebird have said they didn’t like the main character at the start and then they feel ashamed later for how they judged her. Did you want people’s sympathies to move throughout the play?

Yes, a device I like to experience when watching drama is uncertainty of sympathy. Some of my favourite plays force me to understand the hearts of characters who carry out great cruelty - and here it was important for me explore the idea of culpability in the play.

I totally agree with what Carly, the service manager from The Children’s Society said in the post-show Q and A. When victims start grooming other victims, their motivation is not to hurt other people – they are acting out of fear and the abuse they are suffering, and they need to continue to be helped and supported.

Are you excited about the live broadcast of Firebird?

It will be a unique experience to watch it on screen and great to know so many more people can see the play since it sold out relatively quickly at the Hampstead.   To see the actors up close and every tiny nuance of their performances will, I hope, be really powerful.

What does it mean to you to know that the play could help bring about change for teenagers who are being sexually exploited as part of The Children’s Society’s Seriously Awkward campaign?

I can’t tell you what that means. It’s one thing to have people from the theatre world come and tell me they like the play. But that’s nothing compared to the first time some of The Children’s Society staff who directly help teenagers saw the play.

To have them come up and say to me that this is an important piece of theatre, that it’s real and believable, that it reflects their everyday work helping exploited teenagers, was the best thing to hear. That’s why we tell stories and why I’m a writer; we want to connect with other humans and make them see the world differently.  I hope Firebird helps bring about change.

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Posted: 1 January 1970