Review: Birdland, Royal Court

“I literally have enough money to buy anything”

It was Scarlett Johansson wot did it. My over-riding thought as Simon Stephens’ Birdland built to its destructive climax was that the alien for Jonathan Glazer’s recent film Under The Skin had somehow infiltrated affairs. The viscous black liquid that surrounds Ian MacNeil’s set slowly rises to encroach on the ever-twisted world of tortured rockstar Paul, threatening to swallow him in its total embrace, an oblivion the man might truly welcome. But it is just a coincidence, although perhaps rooted in some conceptual similarity, there are no aliens here. Or Hollywood superstars.

Instead, Irish legend-in-the-making Andrew Scott plays a hugely successful musician who is on top of the world and coming to the end of going round the world on a huge tour. Whipped into a constant fervour by the corrosive side of celebrity, his personality has become so warped that he can, and does, demand anything he wants, and by and large gets it. Aside from making him a total f*cktard, especially where his best friend and bandmate’s girlfriend is concerned, it also symptomizes the deeper societal malaise of a corrupted capitalist mindset in all its exploitative ugliness.

Director Carrie Cracknell employs an exciting visual language in this Royal Court production, pushing at notional ideas of representation through MacNeil’s almost gnomic design. A golden arch that slides back and forth across the stage, plastic wheelie chairs that remain onstage throughout, reels of vibrant orange police tape, the aforementioned black water that surrounds them all – Cracknell cleverly manages to suggest a hugely interpretative approach to the text but it is one which never alienates through its strangeness, never pushes its audience too far in search of dramatic thrill – it is still Sloane Square after all. 

But for all her efforts, Stephens’ play doesn’t quite have the tautness one might have expected. The career-threatening spike of revenge feels lazily plotted, a further late twist assumes an incredulous amount of naïveté from someone several albums and two world tours deep into his career, the larger themes of the writing never really kick as hard as they could. Instead, the real joy comes from little moments – the hilarious chat of the hospitality suite “it felt like you were really there”, the heartbreaking meeting with Paul’s father “[your album got] four stars in the Chronicle and Echo”.

I was thus left feeling perhaps Cracknell’s production had served Birdland better than it deserved. That said, there’s much pleasure to be had from the hard-working cast. Alex Price’s Jonny, the cuckolded mate, is as grounded as Paul is fancy-free and excellent with it, Nikki Amuka-Bird’s waitress who gets briefly swept up into the madness is pitch-perfect, and Daniel Cerqueira’s multi-roling is award-worthy, not least for the agonising awkwardness of his father, estranged in so many ways from the heightened reality of his son’s life. And at the heart of it all, Andrew Scott is mesmerising as the man who think he’s on top of the world, only to find there’s nothing left beneath his feet. 

Running time: 1 hour 50 minutes (without interval)
Photo: Tristram Kenton

Playtext cost: £3 
Booking until 31st May

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