Birdland by Simon Stephens

If there was a drop of water for every play ever staged about how money won’t bring you happiness during the Fringe, then Edinburgh would experience major flooding. Extend this to all pieces of art in the world and we’re taking a flood of biblical proportions. Ever since people have had money there have been artists snidely telling us all not to worry as they’re all secretly miserable, and into this overcrowded genre comes Birdland,with mixed results.

Birdland is just a well-produced version of a slightly messy script.

Birdland tells the story of Paul, an international rock star on a worldwide tour and his eventual fall from grace. First and foremost, credit must be given to the cast, who uniformly give great performances, in particular Oliver Skan’s spectacular job as Paul. Bringing a fascinating charisma and presence to the character that holds the audience’s attention completely, his intensity never wavers despite being on stage constantly throughout the entire show. Skan plays his part perfectly, almost too perfectly. Paul as a character is at times very difficult to watch, because of just for how despicable he is as a human being. At one point during a scene where he mocks and provokes a grieving family an audience member across from me buried his head in his hands and muttered “Oh god” which pretty much summed up my feelings as well. I’ve always held that a character in order to be engaging needs to be likeable or interesting, Paul certainly isn’t likeable and I never found him particularly compelling. We never get to examine him in full, we’re never given any sort of reasoning as to why he is the way and his core conflict, that fame and money only alienate you from everyone else, have been done to death and aren’t reinvented in any great depth here. This isn’t helped by the fact the play isn’t exactly subtle about its message and it times it felt like the characters could have been carrying signs saying “Materialism is bad” around their necks. In addition to this the script is population by several stock characters pulled straight from the Rock star cliché book, the sleazy manager, the put upon band mate and the naïve but sweet fan.

While the script has it problems, the production itself is very slick and polished. Classic and contemporary rock is used cleverly to ease through the smooth scenes changes and the tech team never misses a bit. In addition, the stage is marked out by a square of broken and smashed up glass that reflects the lights across a stage in a nice visual metaphor of warped fame. There are also moments of interest and even tenderness within the script, moments where we see other sides of Paul than just the annoying rock star, or moments when characters discuss if you can materially value people like objects. If there were more of these, the show could have really shone as an intriguing reinvention of the fallen rock idol story; as it is, Birdland is just a well-produced version of a slightly messy script.

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The Blurb

The last week of a massive international tour and rock star Paul is at the height of his fame. Everybody knows his name. Whatever he wants, he can have. He can screw anybody he wants to. He can buy anything he desires. He can eat anything. Drink anything. Smoke anything. Go anywhere. As the inevitability of the end of the road looms closer, and a return home becomes a reality, for Paul, the music is starting to jar. A piercing play looking at empathy, money and fame.

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