The potentially damaging effects of stardom in the anarchic world of rock and roll is no new subject in the public eye. From bullet dodgers Keith Richards and Britney Spears, to the infamous members of ‘the 27 club’, musical train wrecks have been a part of the industry since it began. So although the message of Birdland may be a familiar one, playwright Simon Stephens manages to completely draw us into the scattered mind of an out of control rock star in a very intricate way, just as he did with his adaptation of recent Tony Award winner, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.
This story is set during the last legs of an international tour for British rock star Paul (Mark Leonard Winter) and his bandmate Johnny (Socratis Otto), as they soak up all the trappings that extreme fame can bring. The sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll are all consumed in excess and are starting to show the strain on Paul’s psyche. The ‘yes’ mentality of the recording industry, indulging its stars in their every whim without concern for the consequences, is abundantly apparent as Paul’s behaviour becomes more and more outrageous and contemptible. Consuming cocaine through eye-drops and treating every woman, no matter how unavailable they may be, as his next sexual conquest, has become commonplace behaviour for Paul. When Johnny tells Paul that his new girlfriend Marnie (Anna Samson) is completely devoted, Paul treats it as a physical challenge to test her fidelity, the cost of which has a profound effect on all their lives.
Stephens takes too much time to establish his story and characters, pushing the one-act playing time to a lengthy two and a quarter hours. Yet he never really exposes what kind of an artist the pre-breakdown Paul might have been. Instead, the first third of play is spent deliberating over the details of various interviews, after-parties and back-stage ruminations that show Paul’s gradual incline towards disaster, which when we get to full tilt however, is thoroughly captivating.
Direction from Leticia Caceres doesn’t manage to steer the overly detailed opening scenes away from a lethargic tracking, with Paul played in such a languid manner that he seems surely too uncharismatic to be the global star we’re assured he is. However, after this sluggish start Caceres demonstrates some fantastically inventive ideas to bring a brilliantly fluid motion to Paul’s progressive decline and engages solidly until the inevitably bleak ending.
While our exposure to Paul’s charms may come at a slow pace, Mark Leonard Winter does expose to us the character’s potential for intelligence and dignity in such a way that there’s no doubt we’re rooting for him to redeem himself despite the nagging feeling that things aren’t headed the right way. Stephens script demands a powerhouse performance from its lead, and Winter steps up to the challenge with a performance that gradually increases in intensity as it goes along, getting more and more energetic, before Paul’s final implosion. At once both vulnerable and erratic, arrogant and naïve, Winter handles Paul’s wildly oscillating behaviours with engaging intensity.
The always-excellent Bert LaBonte offers strong support in a variety of roles, delivering first-rate comic timing as a Scottish fan, heart-breaking inadequacy as Paul’s father and flat out contempt as his manager. Equally good are Anna Samson as the tragic French fan-girl Marnie, her mother and a variety of sexual conquests; and Peta Sergeant as a room-service attendant unexpectedly drawn into the vortex of Paul’s life.
Marg Horwell’s set design feels like the expansive back stage area of any large stadium and provides a space for the conceptualisation of scenes through an inventive use of sofas, wardrobe racks and rider tables. Andy Turner’s lighting design craftily directs focus using a variety of techniques, while costumes by Adam Gardnir appropriately encapsulate European styles, if perhaps falling a bit off course with outrageously 80s haute couture in a scene where Paul experiences a pair of sycophantic, wealthy fans at a post-show party. Compositions by Jethro Woodward add enormously to the atmosphere of Paul’s crazed behaviour.
This is no feel-good piece, but a quality production that illustrates what it is easy to believe has been, and possibly still is, the sad truth of the recording industry.