When we first meet rock star Paul, he is backstage after a gig in Moscow. Johnny, his assistant and best friend, asks him if wants something to eat. Paul says he wants a peach, but not just any peach, it has to be ripe, and local. A single peach is duly brought up to him on a silver platter. We, along with Johnny, wait nervously for the megastar’s verdict: ‘This really is a spectacular peach. It’s absolutely fucking unbelievably fresh.’ There’s an audible sigh of relief, and Johnny visibly relaxes.
It’s a credit to Simon Stephens’ writing that this peach, and the brief exchange between the two men, tell us so much about Paul. He is clearly adrift from reality, used to being obeyed and pandered to and having his every wish granted, however ridiculous; he’s bored, greedy, selfish and arrogant, but there’s also something childlike about him – he asked for a peach, after all. It is Stephens’ clever construction of Paul’s character that drives the play and makes it just about watchable. Paul is a man who has been so deconstructed and rebuilt by his fame and society’s adulation and fascination with who they think he is that he is barely human. His stardom comes at a terrifying price, to his life and his sanity. At one point Paul comments, ‘I’ve started losing all sense of who I am anymore . . . Other people remember. They tell me. They know who I am. Everybody knows who I am in real life.’ Yet this is not real life: this is Paul reflected in the eyes of his fans and entourage.
On the one hand, Paul’s reaction to his situation is shocking to behold, as he betrays those closest to him, treats others appallingly and moves from one excess to another. However, this portrait of a star self-destructing isn’t new – we read about them in the papers on a daily basis – and Paul’s monstrous behaviour is rather tame in comparison to the antics of some of the music megastars of the past. Yet what Stephens does manage to do is create a curiously ambiguous character who manages to hold our attention for almost two interrupted hours. Stephens’ Paul is an intriguing mix of youthful naivety and malicious, very adult, behaviour; of soullessness and charisma; of the manipulator and the manipulated. He has an apparent innocence which we’re never quite sure is real or a cleverly calculated front, one minute making us feel sorry for him and his inability to form meaningful relationships before he suddenly turns and stabs those closest to him in the back (or worse).
Andrew Scott is mesmerising and perfectly cast as Paul. He is louche and lithe, handsome and captivating. He effortlessly switches from pitiful vulnerability to terrifying callousness and back again, capturing Paul’s chameleon-like nature, disturbing as much as it mesmerises. Scott also shows himself to be a rather nimble dancer, but, sadly for him and for the play, there isn’t enough movement or music in the production. So, while Paul is a horrific object of fascination, it is hard to imagine how he has managed to capture and maintain the adoration of so many people. Although Birdland is not really about the world of music – Paul is representative of any star in the public eye – it is nonetheless a shame that there is no sense of the pulse and passion of great music and the thrill it can provide, for Paul’s character is the fulcrum on which the play is built, and we need to believe in him completely.
In compelling us to watch Paul’s self-destruction and Icarus-like fall from grace, Stephens, along with director Carrie Cracknell and designer Ian McNeil, also encourage us to think about our values and choices and the role we play as part of our modern, celebrity-obsessed society, and money is given particular emphasis in Birdland. Paul comments that money ‘affects everything’ and he measures the quality of his music in terms of ticket sales and attendance numbers at his concerts. There’s a poignant meeting with his father, for whom a debt of £960 is cripplingly large, but Paul laughs this off; to him it is ‘nothing’. Paul thinks every problem can be solved with cash, and he thinks that love, loyalty, silence and – in the end – his own freedom, can all be bought, for a price. But what he doesn’t realise is that his record label made an ‘investment’ in him, that the money he thinks is real is in fact an ‘advance’ and that, to them, he is a mere commodity to be pimped out, thrust on-stage in front of crowds of adoring fans and forced to perform. In his rush to assign a monetary value to everything, Paul is blind to the fact that the very same has been done to him, and that it has serious consequences. Paul – and we – might think that the value of everything can be measured in the thousands (or hundreds of thousands) of pounds, but the true cost of Paul’s – and society’s – obsession with money is that to one’s own existence, psychologically, morally, emotionally.
Yet, for all it’s horrific fascination, Birdland, for me, fell rather flat, despite Scott’s excellent performance. Perhaps this is because, however hard Stephens tries to avoid the clichés, this is a story we are all-too familiar with. Or perhaps the play fails to come alive because Paul is dead inside. Perhaps it is because we never really know Paul the artist, the musician, the one who has ‘earned’ this intense level of fame. Scott might keep some of us watching, but we leave with a sense of emptiness. Perhaps it’s contagious…