Critics split over Simon Stephens' Birdland
Andrew Scott stars in Stephens' new play directed by Carrie Cracknell which opened at the Royal Court earlier this week
…Carrie Cracknell's smart production, and Andrew Scott's mesmerising lead performance, create a world both repellent and seductive in this glittering moral fable for our celebrity-obsessed times… Scott… pulls off the brilliant trick of being totally dead behind the eyes and fascinating at the same time, an appalling creature who's both totem and symptom… a really lovely performance by Amuka-Bird… I admire the detail in the writing – the sponsors in Paris full of meeting Johnny Hallyday, the visit to Marnie's parents where he asks for a bigger brandy, the news of a four-star review in his local rag at home – but the apparent slickness of the play carries a strong poetic resonance, too, and stands alongside the very best of Stephens's output to date.
…even if the message is familiar, the writing takes you inside the scrambled brain of Birdland's damaged hero, beautifully played by Andrew Scott, and Carrie Cracknell's production is ceaselessly inventive… The idea of fame as a Faustian pact is hardly new and Stephens never makes clear how original an artist Paul might once have been. But his play's strength lies in its ambivalence towards its main character… Without exculpating Paul, Stephens shows the invasive pressures that come with stardom… Scott's performance catches perfectly Paul's weird contradictions… There is strong support from Daniel Cerqueira… and Nikki Amuka-Bird… And Cracknell's fluid production and Ian MacNeil's design, with its plastic chairs and shifting archway, excellently evoke the dismal anonymity of Paul's materially expansive but spiritually shrunken world.
…The result, though, is curiously dispiriting. For all the air of experiment in the abstract staging and multiple role-play of Carrie Cracknell's striking production, Stephens's drama, which is named after the Patti Smith song, is only intermittently successful at bursting through the cliches of the rock-rake's-progress… Scott – who never sings but performs some sexy Jagger-like dance moves – is excellent at conveying Paul's cruelty and charisma, the spoilt-child charm and the bullying manipulativeness of the terminally bored… There are some powerfully imagined encounters… But there's too much that just feels like a jazzed-up version of the tired tropes of the genre…
…I recently spent a couple of uncomfortable hours having root canal work at the dentist's, and I can honestly say it was a more enjoyable experience than watching this play… the play is yet another deeply depressing dud… It's the kind of role Scott could do in his sleep, and he catches this reptilian character with some panache, with lots of disconcerting stares and sudden mood swings… But it all seems woefully predictable… A talented supporting cast is squandered in unrewarding roles. The design is dull, and the director Carrie Cracknell betrays signs of desperation, at one point flooding the stage for no apparent reason other than relieving the dreadful tedium of the piece. My advice is stay at home and listen to the Stones.
Andrew Scott's extraordinary performance lights up Simon Stephens's new play about a rock god losing his mind. Yet the piece itself, designed to unnerve, is at its most absorbing in the rare moments when it resembles not an addled fantasy but something more conventionally domestic… there's a sharp visual language, courtesy of director Carrie Cracknell. The staging is sparse and bold… There's also strong support, with Daniel Cerqueira excellent… while Nikki Amuka-Bird… evokes the grounded morality of someone who can ultimately break free from the madness of the media circus… there's not enough vitality in this portrait of a supposedly wild individual who can magnetise legions of fans… And for all the charisma of the brilliantly agile Scott, the pulsating excitement of the music that makes him famous never comes across.
…Well, there are lots of details to admire in Birdland… Indeed, for the first 20 or 30 minutes… I thought this might even match Stephens' greats such as Harper Regan or Punk Rock… The trouble is that the rest of the two hours don't colour in that sketch… For all its ambition, though, this story about hollowness itself ends up a little hollow… It's a shame that Birdland doesn't tell us more that we don't already know… the acting is fabulous: not just Scott, but also Nikki Amuka-Bird as Paul's girlfriend, Charlotte Randle as an expat interviewer, Daniel Cerqueira as a posh manager, Alex Price as Paul's grounded bandmate and Yolanda Kettle as his alluring, ill-fated girlfriend.