When I arrived at the Royal Court Theatre for the matinee of Pests (https://dramaqueensreview.com/2014/04/28/), an autograph-hunting crowd thronged the stage door. I was too out of the TV loop to immediately identify the attraction: the actor Andrew Scott (Moriarty in the Sherlock Holmes series) who has the leading role as rock-star Paul in Simon Stephens’ Birdland. Given the enthusiasm I witnessed at the stage door, I thought I was in for a theatrical treat having booked for an evening performance of the play. In the event, Birdland failed to fly either in terms of the play itself or (albeit it to a lesser extent) its star attraction.
The play works off the familiar conceit of a millionaire rock-star losing touch with reality. A life spent in luxury hotel rooms whilst flying around the world on multiple gigs (the play opens on a Moscow tour), Paul is no longer grounded in the ordinary, the everyday. Whatever he wants he can buy, whether it is a juicy peach or a helicopter. That he has lost his moral compass becomes apparent as he sleeps with his best buddy’s girlfriend to prove the point that she can’t be trusted. The girlfriend’s subsequent suicidal leap from the hotel rooftop leaves Paul not feeling blameworthy but ‘fascinated’. High on cocaine rather stricken down with guilt, he continues the celebrity lifestyle and fails to feel for or to find genuine connections with others. The closest he comes to this is in a reunion with his father who needs to borrow a thousand pounds, but here too the capacity to feel is not all it should be; dad leaves seemingly duped by the idea that his son has not really changed at all. Downfall comes in the form of a rape charge from an under-aged girl; seemingly Paul was set-up by his revenge-seeking, erstwhile best friend. We learn that he probably won’t go to prison, but stay imprisoned in the hell of his own life-in-the-fast-lane-making. Bereft of money (it turns out he doesn’t actually have the millions in the bank but rather is contractually in debt to all and sundry) and friends, the singer is left to carry on with his soulless career.
Given the thematic centrality of the singer’s divorce from reality, there was ample opportunity for this play to hit a contemporary nerve – as an allegoric take on today’s bankers and politicians responsible for the economic recession that hurts and hits millions of everyday, ordinary folk, but from which they remain immune both on a material and humanitarian level. But it never packed that political punch. Perhaps I was too alienated by the idea of a female suicide as a vehicle for exploring the disintegration of male bonding to have a real feeling for what Stephens was trying to convey through his self-destructing star. Yet in other ways the dramatic writing is itself unclear; it lacks the kind of detail about the singer, a fleshing out of where he came from or what his music stands for, for us to care about this non-caring, anti-hero.
Episodically composed as a series of downwards spiralling encounters between Paul and those he meets in hotel lobbies, suites or bars, the play is mostly composed of realist dialogue – this despite Stephens’ self-confessed antipathy to the realism that he laments occupies an all too prominent position in British Theatre (http://www.theatertreffen-blog.de/tt11/artikel-zu/stueckemarkt/skydiving-blindfolded/ ). In production Birdland did have a stylised edge but this was down to director Carrie Cracknell aided by designer Ian MacNeil. In contrast to the realist register of Stephens’ dramatic text, Cracknell opted for a presentational style (yet another row of Forced Ents-like blue chairs for the cast to take up their various, multi-role playing positions), while McNeil’s abstractly conceived hotel setting provided a constant backdrop to and evocation of the singer’s soulless mindset (towards the close, darkly lit water floods the front and sides of the set and our anti-hero douses himself in black filth).
Occasional muffled and muffed lines aside, the cast proved a relatively strong ensemble working hard to bring the play alive. As to Andrew Scott fans, the rapturous applause at the end of the performance suggested they weren’t disappointed. I, on the other hand, have since consoled myself by listening to the Patti Smith track that gave the play its title. Now that I can recommend: