I saw five plays while I was abroad. Birdland is the play I flew 4,000 miles to see. So of course I wanted it to be the best of the lot, which is almost certainly one of the reasons why it wasn’t. But it was thought-provoking and revealed to me some of my own preferences about theatre. This is the first of three posts related to the play.
The action of Birdland is rock star Paul moving from experience to experience to experience on the last leg of a 15-month international tour. Marketing suggests the show is “about” holding up a mirror to our commoditized lives.
So my bad behavior was going into the show looking for a play about an idea or a question. I should have been more open-minded. Where the production fell down was a lack of clarity. I am blaming this on an embarrassment of riches.
Several aspects of Birdland were excellent:
Every ounce of the stage craft, with special acknowledgment for the sound design, the costuming, the absurdly captivating bubbles, and the movement.
The cast was splendid –Nikki Amuka-Bird stands out. The acting was crisp and lively. The cast committed to the vision, and executed well.
The action of the play was tight and diverting. The reported 110 minute run-time clipped by, and the show never sagged for me.
There were some moments that absolutely popped: Paul’s suggestion that two grieving parents buy ‘better brandy’ with the money he wants to throw at them to acquit himself of guilt over the tragedy; Paul’s threatening “Call me ‘mate’ again…’ strop during a post-show party; the dressing room scene with Paul and his father; the beverage cups full of the murky black liquid. Paul being the only character completely clothed in black. At one point he actually drinks some of the murky black liquid. Which raises my favorite question: Is Paul a victim of this contamination? Or is he the actual contaminant?
The show has great bones, and a strong pulse, but it ultimately fails to come alive. The actual drama seemed intentionally secondary to the visual language of the show. But then the visual language didn’t deliver a satisfactory story. A horde of beautifully complex human relationships were completely squandered. I assumed this was to make them seem flat and worthless, just the background noise to Paul’s disorienting life, but so much could have been said by playing with their volumes. Not enough was made of Paul’s awareness of his relationship to the murk which also would told a great story.
The ending was the one part I thought was actually bad. Marnie, the swing, and Joseph’s spare Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat were unoriginal, poorly written, without an evident point, and unfulfilling. So I’m blocking it out until I see another production.
Birdland runs through the 31st of May at the Royal Court Theatre. It is absolutely worth seeing so you can make up your own mind about it.