After watching Simon Stephens’ Birdland, I jotted down a few words as a reminder of my first reaction: death, His Dark Materials, Neil Young, drowning not waving, pink and yellow, you can never go home, anti-vampire, thick black. Reading them, I hope they convey some of the play’s excitement, if not the lucidity and precision and sheer confidence with which this world unfolds.
Paul is losing his mind. It’s not the indulgence or the pampering. It’s the absence of an internal life, extinguished by the constant gaze of others. Paul doesn’t know who he is because all others do. He is the anti-vampire, his reflection everywhere, more real than the real thing. He lies like he tells the truth, and he tells the truth like he lies. Death courts him by the sheer absence of life. He tries to transcend himself, but some time somewhere he crossed a line and he can’t go back.
Paul and Johnny. Johnny and Paul. Johnny escapes the gaze, can go for a walk, fall in love. Johnny still knows home. Their friendship survives everything but them being together. In one scene, they are as close as they will ever be, just before they explode apart.
Simon Stephens’ language has the confidence to be ordinary, but is also fearless with a dry mouth quality. He captures that moment before everything goes wrong, or very right, and at that moment you can never tell which. Carrie Cracknell directs with the confidence of all the colours and movements and shapes in the world. Nothing is off limits, yet the result is a composed sharp image of chaos.
Andrew Scott as Paul breathes the ambivalence and hopeless energy of someone caught in quicksand. His voice gets flatter, his posture slumps but he still and always shines a bright inescapable deathly charisma. Alex Price’s Johnny is confident with the same explosiveness Paul is desperate. Johnny’s quiet drive comes from the self he preserved from the world, and Price makes the hidden unknowable vitally present. Nikki Amuka-Bird’s luminous relentless intelligence is Paul’s – and the play’s – conscience, his one chance at grace. Daniel Cerqueira shines as Paul’s father and more so as his manager, making indifference surprisingly fascinating. Charlotte Randle brings a painfully sharp energy to her performance and Yoland Kettle finds morbid innocence in sweet smiles.
The set – simple but with theatrical flourishes so interesting I can’t describe for fear of spoilers – reflects Paul’s small world. Hotels and balconies and clubs and concert venues, they all look the same – bright, bubbly, exposing – because they are.
As with all the best productions, you feel more alive watching Birdland than doing anything else. Like a song that can change the world. Sung by a Manchester band no doubt.
Running time: 1 hour 55 minutes without interval