Image credits: Andrew Scott in Birdland Photo by Richard Hubert Smith (c) Royal Court Theatre
Birdland is a warning on the perils of fame. That makes it very much a tale of our time but though the bold, exciting presentation from director Carrie Cracknell and the star casting of Andrew Scott catches the eye, this play doesn't really bring anything new to this well-worn subject.
Paul (Andrew Scott) is a rock star in a world of drugs, sycophants and indulged narcissism. He is denied nothing and he is surrounded by enablers only too willing to support his habits for the sake of their own (usually financial) ends. The only exception is the support and companionship he gets from his best friend, Johnny (Alex Price)
So yes, the fast living is all present and correct - Paul shagging groupies, Paul taking drugs into the eyeballs, Paul frittering away obscene amounts of cash - but it's all quite tame really, especially when compared to the legends of the Stones and Led Zeppelin. Hell, it seems tame compared to Justin Bieber. We're all so used to this now that nothing in this play is particularly shocking.
But with no restrictions on his behaviour, Paul seduces then discards Jonathan's girlfriend - Marnie (Yolanda Kettle). Afterwards he decides it's best to tell Jonathan what's happened, only to rid himself of his own sense of guilt. But Marnie is so distraught, so terrified, she commits suicide.
From here, the play meanders through the remaining dates on Paul's long world tour with the supposed tension coming from the ifs and whens of Paul's promised confession to his friend who is desperately mourning the loss of his girlfriend - and what that will do to the only genuine relationship in Paul's self-obsessed existence.
Simon Stephens' conversational script has some interesting observations on value systems and some witty repartee around ordinary subjects such as peaches and osteopaths but it lacked a tension to drive the story through to its climax.
Andrew Scott is unequivocally the most engaging part of this production. Famous for bringing an interesting spin to Moriarty in Sherlock, he plays with expectations here again, choosing to play Paul more as an errant spoilt brat with no barriers, rather than an obnoxious rock star. There's almost a manchild element to Paul, an arrested development. It's a fascinating, intriguing approach.
It works well in those moments, when the effects of the drugs briefly recede to reveal a loneliness, a vulnerability that is usually masked over, suppressed. Paul is a man desperate to find something, someone meaningful in his life. But no sooner do we get that brief glimpse of humanity then the ego kicks back in and the arrogance returns.
The segues between Paul's life on stage and off are brilliantly done with bursts of music and some pretty rock god moves from Mr Scott but there isn't much else to get interested in until the end when Johnny and Paul are finally reunited in a scene alone - a climactic scene which is undoubtedly the best in the show, full of anguish.
Like her previous production - Blurred Lines at the NT Shed - Carrie Cracknell brings a really bold directorial vision to this show. And like Blurred Lines, the fusion of music and movement with the script really brings the piece to life. However there are some odd choices such as a gradual flooding of the stage in a watery black ink.
Overall you'll be entertained by Birdland but it won't leave much of a lasting impact. The stakes are so low for Paul, for any of the other characters, that the play just sort of meanders along. And given the subject matter was nothing new, I wasn't really sure what I was meant to take away from this.
That was pretty much summed up by a couple who were sitting behind me on the bus on the way home. They had also been at the Royal Court. After the exchange of a couple of sentences on the play ("that was a bit pointless wasn't it?" "Didn't really understand why all that black ink") they started to talk about something else - Mo Farah running the Marathon. It didn't leave a lasting impact on them either.
Royal Court Theatre, London
To May 31, 2014