Birdland, Royal Court Theatre, London – review

One of Simon Stephens’ strengths as a playwright is his ability to create amoral ogres who are charismatic and compelling but not remotely likeable. Often these figures engineer the downfall of the play’s protagonist, but in Birdland protagonist and demon are one and the same.

His central characters are usually in search of not just a life but a fundamental, viable reality for themselves; here, rock star Paul is an examination of what happens to that search when all opposing forces, including any inner sense of consistency or coherence, are removed. He flings money, sex, personality and abuse at all around him seemingly at random; when this conduct results in a death, the last vestiges of his grip on the world around him begin to evaporate.

The role of Paul feels as if it has been written specifically for long-time Stephens associate Andrew Scott; it embraces both Scott’s skill at doing virtually nothing in a way that is magnetic, and also the vein of infernal, unpredictable camp he has mined in his portrayal of Moriarty in the BBC television series Sherlock. Paul is at once mythic (for the world of the play is one in which record companies underwrite acts to an extent unseen for decades in the real world) and, through the cracks in the icon, still vestigially human. Carrie Cracknell’s staging begins minimally, with the cast of six sitting on a row of chairs, and gradually expands until, after just less than two hours, Paul is wrapped in crime-scene tape and writhing in a pool of black water.

Stephens (himself a sometime bassist in an art-punk combo) explicitly acknowledges a number of sources/influences in the playscript, from rock photographer Kevin Cummins and The Fall’s Mark E. Smith to the Rolling Stones road movie Cocksucker Blues and Brecht’s Baal. The title itself is a homage to Patti Smith. This milieu is a cosmos away from the versions of his native Stockport in which several of his other works take place, but the human culture and the impulses and yearnings of its inhabitants are the same. And, as so often with Stephens, at the end a glimmer of hope remains, though I’m damned if I can say where. It is, as Smith says in her song “Birdland”, “beckoning like the hands of Blake”.

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