Monday, 14 April 2014

Theatre review: Birdland

Simon Stephens and Andrew Scott have previously collaborated to devastating effect on Sea Wall. Playwright and actor now reunite as Stephens writes a full-length play for Scott to star in, headlining Birdland as an international rock star called Paul (I did keep wondering if the character's name was a reference to Scott having played Paul McCartney in the past.) Paul is nearing the end of his second world tour, and his biggest yet. He's accompanied by his best friend and co-songwriter Johnny (Alex Price,) the one real link to his life pre-fame. But on the Russian leg of the tour Paul sleeps with Johnny's girlfriend Marnie (Yolanda Kettle,) who kills herself soon afterwards. With his friend no longer in a mental state to anchor him, Paul heads towards the home leg of the tour with his sanity steadily unraveling.

Carrie Cracknell's production is a two-hour ride through Paul's fracturing psyche that eschews naturalism and boasts performances as good as you'd expect from this cast; but Stephens' play presents problems it has a hard time getting over.

Stephens has identified a number of themes that the rock star subject matter brings up: Fame as a damaging influence has been explored many times before, but Birdland turns fame into a kind of autism, such is Paul's inability to relate and empathise with anyone else. He makes attempts to connect with normality, but falling for a room service waitress (Nikki Amuka-Bird) and bringing her on tour with him is a plan nobody will come out of well. Meanwhile the writer also embraces a more general theme about money, as Paul's new fame and fortune makes him reduce everyone and everything's value to a cash figure.

With a theme of encroaching death as well, Birdland ends up overloaded and sloppy. There are moments when Stephens seems to be pulling all the threads together in an impressive and satisfying way, only to fly off in another direction again - my attention span is pretty good but if the play itself can't stay focused it's hard to keep my interest. And the plot's final pull of the rug out from under Paul involves him having a fundamental misunderstanding of how the music industry works that seemed naïve when used as a plot point in the fluff that was I Can't Sing!, let alone a thoughtful piece whose lead has three albums and two world tours under his belt.

This isn't to diminish Cracknell's impressive production, which embraces Paul's nightmarish descent on Ian McNeil's industrial set, an island surrounded by black water that it gradually sinks under. Scott is of course charismatic enough to show how Paul can get away with his behaviour for as long as he does, and Price can deliver a solid everyman to ground him and provide contrast. They're backed up by a multitasking cast including some nicely contrasting turns from Daniel Cerqueira including a slick manager and Paul's down-to-earth father, and Charlotte Randle fun as a wealthy supporter of the arts with a free pass to a backstage area she clearly doesn't fit in to. But with the Royal Court's reputation as writers' theatre, there are sometimes plays that make me think the script has been taken too much as gospel1, and the production hasn't embraced the opportunity to iron out problems with rewrites. Birdland gets an adventurous staging from Cracknell, but not one bold enough to take on the play's flabbier elements and streamline them into something that could have been really powerful.

Birdland by Simon Stephens is booking until the 31st of May at the Royal Court's Jerwood Theatre Downstairs.

Running time: 2 hours 5 minutes straight through.

1I'm often reminded of an interview with Mike Bartlett about Earthquakes in London, where he said he was taken aback during rehearsals when Rupert Goold started giving him daily homework in the form of rewrites - after a run of plays at the Royal Court he'd got used to the idea that the writer's job was done when he delivered the script, and he could spend the rehearsal period sitting in a corner cracking jokes.

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