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‘Sherlock’ villain Andrew Scott gives an incandescent performance as an imploding rock star in this troubling, intoxicating new play from Simon Stephens.
The mercurial playwright is back in avant-garde mode after hitting West End gold with ‘The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time’: ‘Birdland’ is a two hour, interval-free show that feels a little like Gus Van Sant’s arty Kurt Cobain biopic ‘Last Days’ spliced with a Russell Brand stand-up set. Which probably isn’t the most promising description, but the effect is electric, as Scott’s preening, elemental Paul wisecracks his way into the abyss with unapologetic inexorability.
‘Birdland’ isn’t really about rock stars or even rich people – like much of Stephens’ work, it’s a tragedy about a man incapable of empathising with other people. Paul’s extreme fame has left him unable to relate to anyone: he’s now a sort of brilliant child, spoiled by the fact he can buy, fuck or charm his way through any social situation, completely unable to work out what the ‘right’ thing to do is in any given moment. He’s an obnoxious, self-destructive twat, basically.
Set over the final dates of a gruelling world tour, ‘Birdland’ follows Paul through a series of terrible social faux pas, with the main plot driver Paul’s decision to sleep with his bandmate Johnny’s girlfriend, and his subsequent, almost autistic insistence that they tell Alex Price’s Johnny what happened.
There is a real, festering nastiness to Paul, a sense that he begrudges ‘normal’ people their happiness. But Scott never loses our sympathy: partly because he’s so amusing, partly because he’s so pitiable, partly because Scott really is so goddam charismatic, a pint sized pop pixie with a fruity drawl, a far out line in clothes, and rock star’s bond with the audience, often breaking the fourth wall to offer a cheeky bit of audience eye-contact.
Carrie Cracknell’s production is excellent, an eye-popping, fast-moving blur of glitter and neon. Set in hotels and hospitality areas, Scott is sat down for much of it, with the rest of the cast sliding away and towards him in the guise of whatever fan, friend or groupie he’s messing it up with this time. Early on, scenes simply end at peak awkwardness without consequence for Paul. But his chickens start coming home to roost, and the late scenes are devastating, most particularly the one in which he meets up with his dad and finds himself totally at sea, horrified at this kindly old man trying to have a normal conversation with him.
The very end of ‘Birdland’s story feels slightly perfunctory, a contrived little twist that’s brazened out via Cracknell’s stylish direction and Scott’s megawatt charm. But the plot never interferes with the essence of the play, a portrait of one man’s Icarus-like mental plummet, so far and so fast and so flashy as to be as exhilarating as it is sad.