Put simply, Andrew Scott delivers another onstage tour-de-force in Birdland, the impressionistic new play from Sea Wall writer Simon Stephens. As Paul, a rock star who has just crested the cusp of superstardom in an undirected burst of hedonism and eventual self-destruction, he commands the stage very much as he did in the 2011 National Theatre production of Emperor and Galilean, never leaving and always at the centre of attention. Paul is initially wickedly funny, rude and potty-mouthed, fully embracing the chance, fame and money he has been given but eventually losing all sense of morals and normal behaviour, divorced from his friends and unaware of the desperate scrabbling of those he has left behind as he descends into angry paranoia and guilt. Andrew Scott is a dab hand at this kind of material, delivering a performance of such frantic physicality, such bubbly naturalism and such titanically shattering anger that you are hypnotically drawn to the character despite the hideous actions he takes and the horrendous things he says.
The supporting cast that bounces and feeds off Andrew’s performance is also universally excellent. With a group of six players, Birdland is economical with the use of the other actors, with only Alex Price (Being Human, Merlin, Doctor Who) alone in portraying a single character throughout - Paul’s best friend Johnny, who he ultimately betrays more powerfully than anyone. The other performers each play multiple roles throughout, but are also gifted a critical, showpiece character. Nikki Amuka-Bird (Luther, Silent Witness) as Jenny expresses wide eyed wonder and then horror at the world she is invited into by Paul. Daniel Cerquira (Wallander, Birdsong, HBO’s Rome) is hilarious as his tour manager, initially a true yes-man before turning into an angry lecturer. Yolanda Kettle (Holby City) is warm and misguided as Marnie, Johnny’s girlfriend, and Charlotte Randle (Silent Witness, Legacy) is brittle and unimpressed as a journalist who is ultimately the only person able to see straight through Paul.
Particular attention also has to be paid to the imaginative production design that highlights a deeper visual metaphor that lies at the heart of the entire play. Surrounded by a glassy moat, the stage slowly tips by increments as Paul’s world continues to collapse, allowing a wash of black poisonous water to creep in like a cancerous tide all while the detritus of consumerism is thrown into the mix, eventually producing a symbolic filth that soaks into the day-glow, 1960’s coloured clothing of those performing.
Birdland is a play that presents us with a facade that is ultimately permeated by casual, almost accidental greed and self destruction. It is not a moralistic fable, as in the end it neither chooses to damn or champion Paul in the method of the destruction he creates. Thanks to Andrew Scott’s performance, it is ultimately a play that leaves the audience to make their own judgement upon a man who blindly allows his world to drown in the creeping darkness that fame can sometimes incite, if the celebrity is not strong enough to control the excesses that they now find readily available to them.
Birdland is performing at the Royal Court Theatre in London until May 31 2014. For ticket availability, check the Royal Court Theatre website.