Birdland

Simon Stephens
Royal Court Theatre Downstairs

Yolanda Kettle (Nicola), Andrew Scott (Paul) Credit: Richard Hubert-Smith
Charlotte Randle (company), Nikki Amuka-Bird (company), Yolanda Kettle (company) Credit: Richard Hubert-Smith
Andrew Scott (Paul) in front. Behind: Yolanda Kettle (company), Daniel Cerqueira (company), Nikki Amuka-Bird (company), Charlotte Randle (company), Alex Price (Johnny) Credit: Richard Hubert-Smith

Simon Stephens, who started off writing well-made kitchen sink dramas about his native Stockport, seems increasingly keen on experimentation and striving for effect rather than constructing works to please audiences.

The enigmatic, existential style that he now favours might owe something to Bertolt Brecht and tends to be much more popular on the European mainland than in the British Isles.

That is because, while the writer's sense of adventure can be admired and sometimes pays off, the fragmented, dissonant stories are often hard work to watch and mine for meaning or messages.

Birdland falls squarely into this category, obliquely telling the tale of Paul, a misogynistic or possibly more accurately misanthropic rock star with a desire for self-destruction. Our protagonist is the kind of tedious, self-centred celebrity who has it all and wants more.

The opening scenes show the support that he gets from Alex Price's Johnny, his fellow band member and only friend. They also highlight Paul's contempt for the female of the species, represented in varied guises by Charlotte Randle, Nikki Amuka-Bird and most depressingly Yolanda Kettle, who gets suckered into suicide in one wig then raped in another, thankfully both episodes occurring off-stage.

Andrew Scott commits admirably in his portrayal of a bored man who thinks nothing of the mayhem that he causes in an effort to get kicks.

Paul annoys everyone that he meets and maliciously takes his friend's girl before driving her to an early grave. His behaviour thereafter is equally distasteful, presumably intended to represent the undesirable materialism to which society has stooped.

In an effort to ensure that this Birdland might come over as a morality tale, Stephens then brings Paul down, first financially and then criminally, using plotting techniques that are actually incredibly conventional and rather old-fashioned.

Carrie Cracknell's production takes place on a bare stage adorned with an arch. Only slowly does it become apparent that the floorboards are receding, moving the drama into oily water for reasons that may be too deeply symbolic for the average viewer to divine.

Simon Stephens has an enthusiastic following which will lap up such presentations. Others should be wary before booking tickets.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher