It’s universally acknowledged that absolute power has the ability to corrupt absolutely but in Simon Stephens’ new play Birdland, it’s absolute fame, seemingly limitless cash and a life lived so disconnected from reality that turns rock star Paul (Andrew Scott) into an amoral monster.
Paul is a man on the edge. It’s the last few days of a nigh-on two year world tour and a return to “normal” life in London looms large. In the space of a few short years, the band has gone from playing to a handful of people in crummy clubs to international stadia, the money is rolling in (or rather the huge record company advance is), every whim is indulged and people fawn wherever they go.
But what do you do when you have everything you’ve ever wanted? What do you do when you have lost all sense of who you are and home is an ever-fading memory? Well you alienate everyone around you (sleep with your best friends fiancée), make preposterous demands of hotel room service (ask for a single, locally sourced peach in a Russian hotel at midnight), humiliate your fans, take as many drugs as you humanly can, toy with journalists and on a visit to a deceased girl’s parents ask for a bigger and better brandy than the one they have given you.
The story is a well-worn one: the destabilising effect of fame, and it draws much from playwright Simon Stephens own experiences in post-punk band The Country Teasers as well as classic rock documentaries. It also wears the influence of Bertolt Brecht’s Baal on its sleeve. There are plenty of examples of the foibles of rock stars throughout but for all the gasps of astonishment at Paul’s worst excesses there’s an overwhelming feeling that it breaks no new ground and could have been grittier and more dangerous.
If we are being completely honest about this whole endeavour then we must acknowledge that the major selling point of the play is not writer Stephens but ‘frontman’ Andrew Scott. Indeed, such is his pulling power that the initial run was extended almost immediately after tickets sold out. Riding on a wave of success from his universally acclaimed role as Moriarty in Sherlock which was topped by a BAFTA win, there are flashes of the mercurial Moriarty in this portrayal of Paul; the same deadness behind the eyes, the same irresistible magnetism. He remains at all times throughout, mesmeric.
For all Paul’s monumental arrogance, and at times abhorrent and cringe-inducing behaviour, there are flashes too of sensitivity and vulnerability, deftly handled by Scott, particularly in an affecting scene scene where Paul visits his father who has borrowed money from some internet ‘payday’ lenders to fix his boiler.
Scott is excellently supported by his fellow cast members: Alex Price, Daniel Cerquiera, Nikki Amuka-Bird, Yolanda Kettle and Charlotte Randall most juggling multiple roles and all delivering knock-out performances in the process.
Presented as a series of short sharp scenes, Carrie Cracknell’s sure-handed direction results in a seamless production and it’s complemented well by Ian MacNeil’s minimal design of a flat golden arch and an oily black moat which laps the edges of the set and slowly engulfs it as the play progresses.
To his credit Stephens’ resists the urge to take the story full circle and provide a tidy ending for the audience. It’s not so much a cautionary tale about the excesses of fame, rather a mirror for those who attain it and what happens when we lose grasp of who we really are in the process.
Photo: Richard H Smith