Herons, Lyric Hammersmith

A scene from Herons by Simon Stephens @ Lyric Theatre Hammersmith. Directed by Sean Holmes. (Opening 21-01-16) ©Tristram Kenton 01/16 (3 Raveley Street, LONDON NW5 2HX TEL 0207 267 5550 Mob 07973 617 355)email: tristram@tristramkenton.com

The herons of Simon Stephens’ play are vicious. Vicious and beautiful. They swoop down to catch their prey, still and composed until they go in for the kill.

There’s more than a hint of the animalistic to director Sean Holmes’ and dramaturg Joel Horwood’s new version of Herons. In the soggy Darwinian playground that designer Hyemi Shin has created, everyone gets dragged underwater at one point or another – though categories of predator and prey are never quite as simple as in the natural world that both play and production evoke. The footage of primates that plays constantly on a large screen above the action dares us to watch the unfolding events like a David Attenborough documentary, but it’s far more complicated than that.

If the landscape of the stage is a playground, then teenagers are its main inhabitants. While adults lurk on the sidelines, this is decidedly adolescent territory. As well as the playground, with its garish roundabout and bobbing sit-on horse, Shin’s set suggests all the abandoned, concrete spaces that kids flock to. This one happens to be a canal lock, water gradually trickling through its gates, but it could just as easily be a deserted car-park or grubby underpass. It’s an in-between sort of place, a no-man’s land for those stranded between childhood and adulthood.

One such stranded individual is Billy, the child of a broken marriage and the butt of his classmates’ jokes. A year ago, his dad found a dead girl in the river and reported the boys who killed her. Now Scott – the young brother of one of the murderers – is promising revenge, tormenting Billy with the help of his two guffawing sidekicks. They are cruel in the way that only children are, ruthless and cunning in pursuit of their prey.

The fragmented, out-of-joint aesthetic of the set extends to Holmes’ production, in which scenes jut sharply into one another and the rules of time and space are frequently disrupted. Horwood has cannily chopped and rearranged Stephens’ text, creating the breathless sense that everything is happening at once. What might be calm, quiet exchanges between Billy and his Dad, fishing at the water’s edge, become truncated and immersed into the all-pervasive brutality of schoolyard bullying. Scenes never quite end, the performers remaining on stage to watch what comes next, their presence looming and ominous.

There’s more than a hint of Secret Theatre, its legacy shimmering like the light reflected off the water. It’s unsurprising, perhaps, given that Holmes, Horwood and Shin are all involved. Yet here some of the most interesting aspects of that project – bold design, a resistance to naturalism, a sense of exploration and surprise – are married to another of the Lyric’s core purposes: its commitment to young people. Two Bugsy Malone alumni (Max Gill as Billy and Sophia Decaro as Adele, the young girl who befriends him) return in this production, while impressive performances are delivered by all of the teenage cast (alongside Ed Gaughan and Sophie Stone in compelling turns as Billy’s parents). We see, for a change, young people actually played by young people – and with nuance and complexity to boot.

There are aspects of the play that are inevitably jettisoned by Holmes and Horwood’s short, sharp shock of an approach. The tenderness that tempers the cruelty – in moments between Billy and his alternately tough and gentle dad, or in the delicate connection that Adele finds with Billy – only briefly glimmers through the darkness in this version, while there are few moments in which to pause or reflect. What it does do brilliantly, though, is blur the fine line that separates bully from victim, particularly in its portrayal of tormenting and tormented Scott (a fantastic, production-stealing performance from Billy Matthews).

Unlike in the animal world, here the food chain is forever shifting. Predator becomes prey. The heron swoops. The cycle of fear and violence starts again.

Photo: Tristram Kenton.

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Song from Far Away, Young Vic

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Originally written for Exeunt.

Willem is a man who never listens to music. He clamps headphones over his ears, but all they play back to him is the sound of his own breathing. It reminds me of something Hannah Nicklin wrote after seeing Carmen Disruption at the Almeida: “I put my headphones in with nothing playing which is the closest I get to this city.”

Willem is the speaker and protagonist of Song from Far Away, Simon Stephens’ latest play, and the two cities whose muffled pulse he hears through headphones are Amsterdam and New York. The old world and the new. Returning to Amsterdam following the sudden death of his brother, disillusioned banker Willem is not unlike the alienated figures who wander through Carmen Disruption, experiencing the city of his youth as “a chorus of rattling trams and bewildering underwear billboard posters and cafés and railings shuttering off unfinished building work”. A noisy, meaningless place.

Walking through Amsterdam, Willem repeats a line uttered by the Singer in Carmen Disruption and by self-destructing rock star Paul in Birdland: “none of this is real”. As that echo suggests, Song from Far Away shares many of the themes that recur in Stephens’ recent work: home, disconnection, the hollowness of late capitalist cities. Even Jan Versweyveld’s calculatedly bland design has the perfect clean lines of every antiseptic, impersonal space that threads through these plays. Whether the room on stage is meant to be the elegant hotel where Willem stays in Amsterdam or the apartment that lies waiting for him in New York, it’s a cool, blank canvas of a space.

On that canvas, Willem composes a series of letters to his dead brother, letters that narrate his fraught and awkward homecoming. After leaving twelve years ago with barely a backward glance, he’s forced right into the grieving heart of his family. Numb and remote, all he does is upset them. Delivering the one-way correspondence as a monologue – always addressed to the invisible ghost of his brother, never to us the audience – Eelco Smits is raw and exposed, both figuratively and literally. Shedding his clothes, he stands on stage stripped of everything his new life has clothed him in, back home with nothing to protect him from the cold.

That coolness seeps right through Ivo van Hove’s stylish but distanced staging – and not just in the flurries of snow that fall behind Smits. It’s also a production that’s very still. Incredibly, precisely, frustratingly still. Whereas van Hove’s stunning take on A View from the Bridge turned Arthur Miller’s play into a ticking bomb, all of us holding our breath as we waited for it to go off, any tension bleeds from Song from Far Away. Though Versweyveld’s deft shifts in lighting move us through the hours, the production has the feel of one of those endless, sleep-robbed nights: slow, static, full of thoughts. It’s numbing, just like Willem moves numbly through his grief.

Feeling sneaks in though, often in the mournful, fractured melody of Mark Eitzel’s music. Just one song ribbons through the narrative, first heard in an anonymous bar and then echoing across the days Willem spends in Amsterdam. We hear it in snatches and phrases, like the half-remembered tunes of the past, until finally it forces its way through – a startling shaft of pure emotion, singing “go where the love is”.

Song from Far Away is a play that echoes with emptinesses. The emptiness of grief with no expression. The emptiness of a city that has long ceased being home. The emptiness of hotels and airports and characterless apartment blocks. The emptiness of the promises we build our lives on: the hollow assurance that it will all be worth it in the end. Like the inky blackness that lies behind the set’s two large windows, such promises are shown to conceal a vast nothingness.

But it’s hard to connect with emptiness, on the stage even more so than on the page. Stephens’ play begs to be re-read almost as soon as the curtain call has finished, yet as theatre it has an oddly detached quality. The first time Willem – the man who never listens to music – hears the song of the title, he says it “caught my heart in its hand”. Song from Far Away struggles for the same heart-squeezing grasp. 

Photo: Jan Versweyveld.

Carmen Disruption, Almeida Theatre

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Carmen Disruption had me at the bull.

Entering the once again reconfigured Almeida auditorium, those of us with seats in the stalls are directed through dingy backstage corridors, emerging onto a rubble-strewn stage. We’re in a crumbling opera house, winding our way past the huge stricken bull that dominates Lizzie Clachan’s design. It remains there in the centre of the stage – hulking, symbolic, breathing its last – as the fractured lives of Simon Stephens’s play circle it, step over it, snap photos of it on their ubiquitous, glimmering smartphones.

The bullfight metaphor has mileage. In Mike Bartlett’s Bull it provides the entire form for the play, as two suited-and-booted matadors savage their doomed colleague. In Islands, the violent ritual is once again symbolic of capitalism, described in extended, gory detail by a grinning Caroline Horton. Here, the dying animal oozes tar-like blood across the stage, an ever-present image of devastation.

It’s also a reference to the bullfighting backdrop of Bizet’s opera, which Carmen Disruption explodes and pieces back together. There’s a moment right at the start of Michael Longhurst’s production – discordant strains of cello, darkness pierced with splinters of light – which somehow feels like a shattering of glass. The rest of the play is spent gathering those shards, fingers bloodied, jagged reflections glinting off the multiple shiny surfaces. It’s Carmen smashed, Carmen refracted, Carmen disrupted.

At the play’s centre – if it can really be said to have a centre – is an unnamed Singer (Sharon Small). She arrives at an unnamed airport, travels through an unnamed European city, arrives at an unnamed opera house sat on the edge of an unnamed river. All she really knows is that tonight she’s singing Carmen, the role she has performed in multiple productions in multiple cities, each shading into the next. And as she traverses this strange yet familiar urban landscape, the opera becomes more real than the faces and buildings sliding past her, imposing itself on the contours of the city.

Carmen becomes Jack Farthing’s swaggering rent boy, all leather jacket and sex appeal. Don José (the quietly astonishing Noma Dumezweni) is a driver for a shady character, trying to pay off old debts and right old wrongs; Escamillo (John Light) has traded bullfighting for investment banking, with a huge bet riding on the canned beef market in China, while Micaëla (Katie West) is a lost, lonely student. Their lives overlap, intertwine, glide past each other, as they all catch glimpses of a mysterious woman with long, curly black hair.

It’s a lot to take in. Longhurst’s direction is swift and sharp; miss a sentence and you won’t get it back. But while these intersecting stories are occasionally hard to follow, you can’t miss the distinctly 21st-century loneliness that throbs through all of them. Instead of speaking to one another, the broken individuals of the play talk out to us. As in Pornography, or in the never-quite-connecting monologues of Barrel Organ’s Nothing, Carmen Disruption offers a portrait of atomisation. The only respite from solitude and heartache is found in the glowing rectangles of smartphones – “should I look it up on my phone?” Small’s floundering Singer keeps asking, eyes darting wildly – while fleeting identity is invested in the things people buy: shirts, espressos, opera tickets.

There’s a thick vein of alienation and global dislocation running through Stephens’s more recent plays. The Singer is Paul in Birdland. She’s Iggy in Three Kingdoms. The world has fallen away from her, sloughed off by countless airport departure lounges and identical hotel rooms, disappearing along with any sense of self. Directors tell her where to stand and how to move her arms, but “they never tell me who the fuck I’m meant to be”. There’s a line repeated from Birdland: “none of this is real”.

That’s one way of reading Carmen Disruption. None of this is real. But that loss of reality is less to do with the Singer’s disorientated mental state and more to do with the identical, antiseptic spaces of late capitalist cities; the global simulacra of hotel rooms and lobbies and shopping centres. It doesn’t feel real because there’s nothing distinct about any of it. We might as well be anywhere – and in Longhurst’s production we are. This is a shadowy world, one eschewing the shiny coloured surfaces of Carrie Cracknell and Ian MacNeil’s Birdland in favour of the crumbling alternate reality of the opera. Theatre has become more real than life, but even that illusion is dissolving at the edges. The only constant is the low hum of electronic alerts, a peripheral stream of information scrolling on the surtitle screen mounted in the back corner of the stage.

The result is smashed-up and bruised and bloody, but breathlessly beautiful nonetheless. There’s a murky, eroding grandeur to Clachan’s design, with occasional bursts of glitter and dust, while the disjointed monologues are laced with echoes of Bizet’s score courtesy of the two onstage cellists. As that other, shadowy Carmen, glimpsed out of the corners of characters’ eyes, Viktoria Vizin is a haunting presence, her voice layering gorgeously over everything else. In the programme, she’s listed simply as Chorus, and there’s something about her constantly observing presence that seems to anticipate the Almeida’s upcoming season of Greek tragedies.

This tragedy, though, is not one of a fallen individual, but perhaps of a falling continent. No matter what the unspecified country we are in, this is clearly a Europe in crisis, its people worshipping at the feet of money and technology while failing to engage with – or even see – one another. The sadness that seeps into every pore of this production speaks of a wider malaise, a crisis that might be averted if only we were capable of reaching out to one another. There’s an insistent humanity to this scattered collection of characters, who yearn for intimacy while shunning it in the same movement. Again and again, they can’t connect. The tragedy is collective, but the pain is isolated.

Photo: Marc Brenner.

Jack Thorne: Everyday Heroism

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Originally written for Exeunt.

Jack Thorne has a habit of apologising. “I’m so sorry,” he says again at the end of our phone call. “I hope you don’t have to transcribe this, because if you do it will just be a load of ‘ums’ and ‘ahs’. It’s just the way my mind works.” Conversation with the writer travels at the swift pace of his thoughts, hopping rapidly from one idea to another, peppered with insistent “you know”s. Listening back to the feverish speed of Thorne’s speech, I can begin to understand the personality that drives him to write for ten hours a day, six or seven days a week. “Sorry, I’m not very eloquent,” he interrupts himself to say at another point. He prefers writing, he explains.

Although Thorne’s addictive passion for writing was born partly out of a frustration with talking – “I think I started writing plays as a way of expressing the things that I couldn’t say,” he writes in the introduction to his first volume of plays – his characters often suffer with a similar struggle to say what they mean. Bookending his Plays: One, both When You Cure Meand Mydidae revolve around relationships in which the right things are never quite said; in the collection’s two monologues, Stacy and Bunny, the protagonists’ alienation is compounded by their inability to talk honestly to those around them. Even in Thorne’s most recent play Hope, whose cast of local councillors spend most of their lives talking to the community they serve, the right words are not always forthcoming.

“I feel I spend most of my life feeling quite guilty about things I should have done or things I should have said,” Thorne says, suggesting that this guilt colours all of the plays in his first collection. The other theme that these plays share, he posits, is that of help and everyday heroism. “I am someone who wants, as we all do, a better world, and I’m constantly looking for people that will lead me there; I’m a follower, not a leader. So I think my plays tend to be about someone looking for that: looking for heroes, looking for help, and what help means.”

In When You Cure Me and Mydidae, both close studies of bruised individuals trying and frequently failing to help one another, that theme is explicit. “If they could only be different people then they could be OK,” Thorne says of the characters, “but they’re not, they’re stuck with being the people that they are.” The lone speakers of Stacy andBunny, meanwhile, are people who desperately need help and aren’t getting it. Thorne describes Rob in Stacy, one of the most unsettling characters he has written, as “someone that’s drowning and is constantly looking for help from anywhere and is destroying himself and others in looking for it”. But for Katie, the mixed up eighteen year old at the heart of Bunny, he holds out more hope. “I think Rob’s pretty lost, Rob’s not going to get there. I think he’s screwed. Whereas I hope she’s on the way to getting somewhere.”

After the microscopic and self-declaredly personal focus of these earlier plays, it’s easy to seeHope, with its more ambitious and expansive look at local British politics and the state of the Labour Party, as a gear change. For Thorne, though, the play made him feel “more personally on the line than I ever have with anything in my life”. Thorne has been a member of the Labour Party since 1996 and grew up in an environment where politics formed an important facet of everyday life – “I spend a lot of time amongst political people,” he explains – making the subject matter closer to the heart than might immediately be obvious. Thorne was also nervous about Hope, he adds, because politics is a topic that naturally provokes disagreement.

“When you’re writing something that’s quite small and set in a bedroom and you’re just going ‘this is how I feel about the world’, people can’t really deny you your right to do that. Whereas when it’s about the state of a political party and how it works locally and all that stuff then you feel people can, because everyone’s going to have a different opinion of that and everyone’s going to have a different experience of that, so you feel very vulnerable.”

That perhaps explains why, despite the strong presence of politics throughout his life, Thorne has tended to avoid explicitly political subject matter in his plays. The other exception is 2nd May 1997, which Thorne describes as “a play about political people” rather than a political play per se. It follows the night of New Labour’s landslide victory through a triptych of two-handers: a Tory politician and his wife facing election defeat; a drunken post-Lib Dem party liaison; and two teenage Labour supporters blinking in the light of a new political future. “It felt for me like there were personal stories to be told from that night,” Thorne says, adding, “I’m always as interested in the personal as the political.”

Hope, which featured in the Royal Court’s “revolution” season at the end of last year, might be read as the bitter sequel to the anticipatory final act of 2nd May 1997. In spite of its title, it’s a play with an awful lot of pessimism about the current predicament of both local government and the Labour Party. But when I suggest that my stubbornly optimistic reading of the final scenes is just a product of my own tendency towards idealism, Thorne protests. “No,” he says, “you’re a romantic. I’m a romantic, I like that.” He admits, however, that getting the ending of the play right was “a real struggle”, and that he’s still not sure if the closing injection of hope is justified. “Would you really want him to be the dawn of a new age?” Thorne asks of Jake, the precocious, outspoken councillor’s son who offers a shred of optimism at the end of the play. “I’m not sure you would, because he’s a pretty messed up kid. So I don’t know. I like things that end with a question mark and not necessarily a full-stop.”

Jake in Hope is just one in a long list of confused and often troubled teenagers in Thorne’s work: Rachel and Peter in When You Cure Me, the schoolboys in the final scene of 2nd May 1997, Katie in Bunny – not to mention his screenwriting work on shows such as Skins, The Fades and Glue. What is it that the writer finds so compelling about the teens? “It is a time when people are made,” Thorne says, “and that feeling of looking at that making of a person is a really exciting feeling as a writer.” His perspective on adolescence, however, has changed since he was a teenager himself, reflecting the gloom of the current political moment. “Generations have spent their lives feeling like they’re on the edge of doom. I think the thing that makes this generation specific is there’s so little optimism, it seems. So little optimism personally as well as politically. I meet young people and their expectations of life are so low.”

His fascination with teenage life is something that Thorne shares with Simon Stephens, who taught him on the Royal Court Young Writers’ Programme. Discussing Stephens’s influence on a whole generation of British playwrights – Thorne laughingly characterises him as being “like a giant Buddha” – the younger writer remembers the party that was thrown when his mentor left the Royal Court in 2005. “It was an impressive bunch of young people there,” Thorne recalls. “Playwrights never go to any parties ever, they avoid parties like the plague in my experience, but it was full of people who just wanted to say thanks to him.”

Also like Stephens, Thorne relishes the collaboration offered by theatre as an art form, but he prefers to limit his contact with the rehearsal process. “What I don’t like is being in rehearsal, I’m not really a rehearsal type of writer,” he says, describing himself as a “very unhelpful” presence in the room. “I don’t write books because I like collaborating, but I’m a better silent partner than I am a vocal partner.”

One of the other reasons Thorne tries to remove himself from the rehearsal room, he tells me, is because he has such a clear and detailed picture of each play in his head. Only by stepping back can he allow other collaborators to put their stamp on it. Encountering the texts inPlays: One for the first time on the page – I have to admit to Thorne that I’ve only seen performances of his later work – this detail is immediately clear. Although he has “a lot of admiration” for writers who are spare with their stage directions, Thorne describes his approach as “trying to present as many pictures to the world as possible”. “Which I suspect makes reading them easier,” he says, “but I’m not sure makes staging them easier.”

In the past, Thorne has spoken about how he finds writing for the theatre much more of a challenge than writing for the screen. When I ask why, he suggests that it comes back to his interest in the small. While he stresses that screenwriting isn’t easy either – “it still fucking makes my hair fall out” – in film and television “there are always ways of getting dynamism and beauty and all those things you need technically in order to be able to tell a story”. In the theatre, on the other hand, “capturing that slightness on stage is a really tricky thing to do and I frequently fail at it in a way that I don’t with screen as much”.

“I’m constantly trying to think larger,” Thorne adds, but he keeps finding himself drawn back to the small and intimate. “That tends to be my fetish as a writer,” he says, musing that it might once again have something to do with help and heroism. “Heroism is often in the small, isn’t it?” he says, sounding pleased with the idea. “Capturing those tiny moments when someone’s life changes – that is the thing that excites me.”

Birdland, Royal Court

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“I don’t believe this,” Andrew Scott cries, gaze directed unwaveringly at the audience. “None of this is real. None of this is really happening. This whole thing is made up.”

Reality and its subjective mutability is a persistent theme throughout Birdland, Simon Stephens’ new play for the Royal Court. So too is liveness and its ever-present flipside, mediation. More audience members at a stadium gig today can see the big screens than the miniscule, far-away figures on stage; fans are more eager to snap selfies with their famous idols than to actually speak to them. Our glowing screens are never far from the edges of Stephens’ play, reminding us that it is not only rock stars who are encouraged to shape and enshrine their own image. We are all constantly sharing, editing, performing for our own personal audiences; blurring the lines between the real and the made up.

Birdland opens in the final stages of an international stadium tour, as its unnamed band stop off in Moscow. Lead singer Paul, reeking of charm and boredom, can have and do anything he wants – and he knows it. Stripped of limits and obstacles, the boundaries of his identity are slowly slipping away from him. He is, in every possible way, losing it. The play traces the escalating carnage of his existence as he careers unstoppably towards a personal and professional car crash, gathering the wreckage of other ruined lives around him on the way.

It’s no great stretch of the imagination to believe that Andrew Scott, charisma oozing from every pore, is a worshipped rock star. From the moment he struts on stage as Paul, he fixes the attention in that way that all the best frontmen do, making it almost impossible to look away. It is this magnetism that makes him ceaselessly compelling, even as he royally fucks over all of those close to him. Jenny, a waitress whom Paul whisks off her feet before spectacularly mistreating her, is generous when she describes him as a cunt; Stephens really has crafted an astonishingly despicable, broken character. Though, as Paul coolly retorts to an accusation that he is a “fucking animal”, he is very much human. That’s the terrifying thing.

Equally terrifying is the play’s verdict on the world we currently live in. While Birdland is superficially “about” the world of rock and roll and the personal crisis of one of its demigods, it is also about the bankrupt place in which society now finds itself. Paul, in all his power, disorientation and self-destruction, is the apex of rapacious capitalism and the cult of the individual. Whether he is a rock star or a celebrity of any other breed is less important than the fact of his fame and the value pinned to his personality. He is more commodity than person, displayed every night for the public’s consumption while record label executives gamble on his worth. No wonder he is losing a grip on his own identity, when all he can see in the mirror is a price tag.

Carrie Cracknell’s striking production both amplifies and tussles with these ideas about identity, individualism, celebrity and capitalism. From the very beginning, the space in which she locates Paul’s crisis is non-specific, strange and slightly dislocated from reality. Ian MacNeil’s typically stylish set consists of a shimmering golden archway and a row of electric blue chairs, the sleek simplicity hinting at the corporate sameness of hotel lobbies all over the world. Everywhere looks the same. There is, wisely, no attempt at naturalistic representation of the succession of hotel rooms, bars and restaurants in which the action takes place. Instead, everything happens in a knowingly theatrical arena; other performers remain on the stage when not in a scene, occasionally casting arch looks over their shoulders, while Scott takes time to flirt with the audience.

By starting out with such a deliberately odd and disorientating aesthetic, however, Cracknell is in danger of leaving herself with nowhere to go. An obvious but useful comparison is Three Kingdoms, which despite dodging an audience’s expectations from the off (and starting in a decidedly strange place with Risto Kubar’s haunting singing) managed to establish one reality which could then increasingly unravel throughout Ignatius’ journey to Germany and Estonia. There is a gathering momentum to Paul’s mental turmoil, signalled by ever brighter and more frequent photographic flashes and the rising tides of inky liquid seeping in from the sides of the stage, but this is a jerky breakdown, one that comes in sharp bursts, rather than the sense of spiralling out of control that the narrative seems to be asking for.

That said, in other ways Cracknell finds incisive and imaginative visual metaphors for the story Stephens has written. The cartoonish, plastic quality of the people Paul finds himself surrounded with (perhaps with the exception of down-to-earth band mate and best friend Johnny and the aforementioned Jenny, who reminds him of the girls he used to know at home) enhances his alienation from the world around him, which appears unreal and fantastical through his eyes. Meanwhile, the script’s understated yet unsettling preoccupation with bodies – their illness, disfigurement and inevitable decay – is hinted at by the slowly encroaching black liquid, which might as well be the creep of disease.

Given the subject matter, one of the most surprising things about this rendering of Stephens’ script is that we never hear so much as a bar of Paul’s music. In fact, aside from a couple of stylised movement sequences backed with pulsing beats, there is very little music at all in Cracknell’s production. The other exception is a deliberately terrible rendition of Sam Cooke’s ‘Wonderful World’, sung by one of Paul’s fans at his request and elevated to the same sort of scene-breaking moment as Steven Scharf’s memorable performance of ‘Rocky Raccoon’ in Three Kingdoms. The suggestion, perhaps, is that it is not really Paul’s music that matters – it is his fame, his monetary worth. Still, we never get a real sense of the muscular excitement and visceral thrill of a live rock concert, which feels like a shame. Theatre has overwhelmingly proved that it can offer the same intoxicating buzz as a live gig (see Beats or Brand New Ancients), but we don’t get that here. (It’s especially disappointing having heard Stephens speak at length about his own enthusiasm for rock music, little of which is allowed to come through – but perhaps a certain ambivalence about the world of rock and roll is appropriate given the events of the narrative.)

The plays’ surface message, that celebrity can fuck you up, might not be anything new. But there is so much more to Birdland than this familiar, oft-repeated observation. What it manages to do so well is convey the tortured complexities of Paul’s character, whose messy contradictions only make him all the more real, at the same time as making a sharp, implicitly political point about modern society. The production could push this second aspect further, shining a spotlight on us as much as on Paul, but it still stands as a damning critique of our globalised, brutally individualistic, fame-obsessed world.

Photo: Kevin Cummins.