WARNING: Contains some spoilers!
written by Simon Stephens
Royal Court Theatre
13 May 2014
playing until 31 May
Simon Stephens’s blistering new work, once again showing the importance of music in his dramatic inspiration, gives us an achingly modern portrayal of fame, and its darker side.
Paul has it all. As the play’s blurb tells us, he can have anything, buy anything, eat anything, smoke anything, go anywhere – and screw anyone, as becomes his downfall. But what do you do when everyone knows who you are, but you’ve lost sight of yourself?
Paul is played brilliantly by Andrew Scott. We are alternatively attracted and repelled by him, sympathetic one moment and ill-disposed the next. He is immensely arrogant, wilfully impulsive, oddly perceptive and constantly frustrating, and always seems to be balancing on the edge of the void. His scene with Marnie’s grieving parents is excruciatingly awkward, although you can’t help but laugh at its ghastliness. Considering the incredible fan base of Sherlock, Scott is clearly the big star draw – but it’s also a star turn. He is nonetheless supported by a strong ensemble, in particular Alex Price as bandmate Johnny, Yolanda Kettle as his doomed girlfriend Marnie, and Nikki Amuka-Bird as the naive Jenny swept into this hedonistic world.
The structure of the play is an interesting one. The ‘big event’ (here being Marnie’s suicide after being unfaithful to her loving boyfriend Johnny with none other than Paul) comes early in the piece, and the fall-out stretches throughout. It toys with the audience, leaving you wondering if Paul’s increasing disorientation and erratic behaviour is because of his guilt, or simply his usual, inevitable path. For him, is this a tragedy or simply a minor incident in his rock and roll life?
The relationship between Scott’s Paul and Price’s Johnny is engrossing. How far can the ties of old friendship and artistic collaboration be stretched before they snap? Paul’s eventual confession is searingly heart-wrenching, as the betrayal of which the audience has been so keenly aware for the past 90 minutes, hits us and Johnny with full force.
Holly Waddington’s costumes are brash, gaudy and colourful, striking against the stark, shifting set. The use of water is intriguing, rising almost imperceptibly until Scott is left standing sopping wet – albeit oddly triumphant – in what appears to be the sewer of his rockstar lifestyle. Even Marnie crawls in it, no escape even in death.
However, the pace slips in the late stages of the play and seems to lose its way before regaining power at the final tableau. The plot flounders rather and the sharpness that has given the play its edge so far blurs into a bit of a muddle.
Yet the final moments regain this dramatic power and, despite these late wobbles, Birdland ranks amongst Stephens’s finest work. It is obviously indebted to his love of music and experiences in that industry. Paul is caught up in the rhythm of a life that sweeps him along, but Scott’s rhythmic yet almost twitchy dancing suggests its grip is torturous. This is an electric and punishing portrayal of the harsh grip of fame and riches and, in the final image, the apparent immortality of a selfish heart.