The day the Rotherham child sexual exploitation trial ended in guilty verdicts, Firebird, a stunning debut play by Phil Davies, laid out a visceral interpretation of similar events in Rochdale. Tia, a mouthy, under-dressed 14-year-old, encounters AJ, a chatty, shiny-suited ‘youth worker’ in a takeaway. She is soaked, freezing and hungry. He buys her chips, and ends up driving her back to her foster home in his Mercedes. The next time we see her she is locked in a room bare except for a dirty mattress, and covered in blood after bottling a man involved in a gang-rape organised by AJ. It’s a tough, shocking watch – Tia is volatile, broken, desperate; AJ charming, mercurial, manipulative. She believes he loves her, that they are in a relationship. That this is what love looks like.
Tia’s story is not really fiction. Alongside abuse in Rotherham and Rochdale are cases of large-scale grooming in Oxfordshire, Derby and Bristol. These are just the ones we know about. The Rotherham trial heard that 54 underage girls had insisted to police they were each the girlfriends of the drug-dealing gang leaders. Firebird showed up-close just how such situations began and spiralled into degradation, dependency and despair, while society and the authorities looked the other way. 54 police officers are being investigated over their roles in the decades-long exploitation, ranging from inaction to complicity to abuse. In every situation it’s estimated hundreds more victims haven’t come forward.
For years, even into damaged adulthood, the girls were blamed for their predicaments. In a Q&A after the performance, the CEO of The Children’s Society told of a 12-year-old girl ferried around the UK to be prostituted, abused and raped who was described by a police officer as “a slag”. It was commonly said that the girls were making ‘lifestyle choices’. The detective in Firebird, played by Phaldut Sharma, who also plays Tia’s abuser, is world-weary and tired, suspicious of the mouthy, damaged, girl in front of him. In a devastating and remarkable performance by Callie Cooke, the love-starved Tia is pulled into a life of force-fed vodka and sexual exploitation. Desperate for attention and affection, she will do anything for the older, married AJ. She no longer has a choice.
Who are these girls? These scrappy, difficult girls identified now by letters – Girl A – or silhouetted in news stories with voices disguised? For years they were ignored. Now they are protected. In both scenarios they are invisible to the majority of society. Firebird brings home starkly that we choose that. Choose to see them as ‘other’, not like us. Sympathies may abound for vulnerable people far away, not so much for excluded, chaotic runaways, hanging around in takeaways who are only sympathetic after the fact and in the abstract.
What was portrayed in the play and stated clearly afterwards was that the most likely route out of exploitation is the help of a friend. Yes, another teenage girl. Not a social worker, not the police, but a young person who by lucky chance has had better opportunities, a better home, more resilience. Someone to notice their absence, someone to offer them love, and hope for the future. In Tia’s case, this is her only friend. A friend she considers handing over to be exploited, too.
Watching theatre deemed suitable only for adults that graphically shows what is happening to children is ironic. While we tut at bad language or wonder if kids should be exposed to gritty drama, for many of them this is real life. A youth worker present said this is a play all young people should see, as should all social workers and police. Kids would recognise it as completely authentic, and be empowered to see that they could help each other. It isn’t acceptable to protect the delicate sensibilities of those of us lucky not be born a Tia. All our eyes should be opened.
Firebird is a stunning piece of work. It shows us who our neighbours are, puts us in the midst of their suffering, in the form of a brittle, gobby girl. Thankfully work by The Children’s Society and others has changed the language and the law, and is starting to change perceptions: we now talk of Child Sexual Exploitation not ‘child prostitution’, but that only frames the nightmare differently. 16,000 children are currently estimated to be at risk of exploitation, some as young as eight.
Rather than shrug or turn away, get involved. See the play, spread the word, read about campaigns that change the law to provide them with protection, investigate fostering and adoption, support girls in their friendships, find out what’s happening where you live and if nobody’s reaching out to girls to offer them safe connections, places to hang out, friendship and support, why can’t you? It’s on all of us not to see exploitation as something that only affects other people. While it’s happening to anyone, it’s on all of us to see it and act.
Firebird is a wake-up call to all of us to do that.
By Vicky Walker