Simon Stephen’s Birdland is an ambitious piece, an exploration of fame and corruption as one rock star ruins the lives of everyone around him. The first hour of Cuth’s Drama Society’s production is incredible – but the show’s downfall arrives through a lack of variety.
Central to the play and onstage for all two hours of its run time is Paul, a demanding role played by Alex Ottie. Paul is carried away by fame, fortune and self-loathing, making him a manipulative and destructive force. Ottie’s investment in the character is obvious, and it pays off. Even when he jokes, there’s a tense undercurrent, like a savage animal waiting to pounce.
The only issue is that the story of a man’s downfall, the emotional spiral of the play, seems to peak too soon and is left with nowhere to go. Whilst Ottie’s first angry, twitchy breakdown is a powerful gut punch, each subsequent one just feels like more of the same.
This issue with repetition carries throughout the show. Most of the parts are multicast, and while there are some standout moments of characterisation – Will Bloor has a particularly entertaining turn as an awkward Scottish superfan – there’s not quite enough there to separate the performances. And so many scenes are static, tense, as Paul monologues further down his spiral while everyone else on stage seems stuck to the spot. They’d be effective on their own, and in no way is any moment of the show poorly performed, but as it carried on there was an increasing sense that I’d seen this scene or character before. It may be a fault of the script rather than this production, but it just didn’t feel like it needed to be as long as it was.
The narrative is fixated on Paul, and he overshadows all other characters with his complexity, but this isn’t a fault of the performers. Cameron Ashplant provides a solid moral compass to the piece as Paul’s bandmate and near polar opposite Johnny, a down-to-earth contrast to Paul’s erraticism. Hatty Tagart puts in an excellent performance as Jenny, a waitress, giving her an excellent steely nerve, composed and not hysterical but a powerful stage presence nonetheless.
In the thrust staging of the Palace Green Debating Chamber, some attention with directing could have been paid to sightlines. In a space with no rake, a scene with characters lying on the floor is quite the strain for anyone not in the front row, and with the audience on three sides it’s important to direct with all three in mind, rather than just the front.
The costumes are impressive, especially Paul’s variety of fur coats and one particularly eye-catching silver jacket, and the show’s rock soundtrack with a dark undercurrent fits the production perfectly. The use of a projected video between scenes is also brilliant, quick snapshots of a tour moving so fast that life all blurs.
Whilst it may have reached an emotional climax too soon and failed to sustain it, Birdland still produces an entertaining piece of theatre and a vehicle for some impressive performances.
Birdland is on at 7.30pm, 3rd-4th March in the Durham Union Debating Chamber.