Hyper-alert Andrew Scott is ideal casting for Paul, the central role of "Birdland," the latest play by Simon Stephens ("The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time"). We never hear him sing but he's wholly convincing as a young-ish rock icon on a stadium tour losing sight of everything he knew. Sadly, audiences arrive knowing much more than he does about rock-star trajectories in this wearyingly predictable evening. The only engagement comes via helmer Carrie Cracknell's consciously non-naturalistic games with Stephens' disappointingly sub-par text, and even those swiftly hit diminishing returns in her latest collaboration with the writer following their much-lauded staging of "A Doll's House."
With Scott's character onstage throughout living out a cross between Brecht's play "Baal" and a rake's progress (minus the pleasure), the play's arc is clear. Paul lives in an off-stage daze of impersonal interviews with journalists, post-show drinking and drug sessions, and coping with the crazy emptiness of ludicrously expensive hotels. Overwhelmingly successful enough to have pure cocaine administered to him via eyedrops and arrogant enough to have lost connection with anyone close to him, he enlivens his time by idly manipulating those around him.
The difficulty for Stephens is to stop someone bored from being boring, which is where Scott comes in. Armed with costume designer Holly Waddington's black raven-wing single sleeve - a reference, like the play's title, to Patti Smith's lost-soul lament -- Scott holds audiences in a vise-like grip. He gives flashes of his stage persona courtesy of fast, fluid shimmers of physicality via Ann Yee's movement direction. But, for the most part, he tethers his trademark purring, sing-song threat of a voice to his unique combination of relaxation and fiercely focused energy.
But Stephens, a supremely compassionate dramatist, has chosen to create a compassionless character about whom it is therefore hard to care. Stephens tries to balance this by surrounding him with people properly worthy of sympathy, most of whom are highly effectively played by four actors doubling with no changes of costume. Nikki Amuka-Bird shines in the frankly unlikely role of a serious-minded hotel worker who goes along for the ride, only to be humiliated. And, in the best-written scene, Daniel Cerquiera is quietly devastating as Paul's struggling father, out of his depth financially and emotionally.
Cracknell's production is deliberately abstract with visual images consciously contradicting lines, as with references to Paul being fat playing against the fact that Scott is lean as grass. But although this allows for fluidity between scenes, it gradually feels like a decadent way to animate so thin a script, albeit one with stern discussions about the values in a world dedicated to money. It's the kind of production where as soon as you clock the fact that Ian MacNeil's set is slowly being flooded with water, you know Paul will sink literally and, of course, metaphorically into it.
Scott vaulted to fame in his BAFTA-winning turn as Moriarty opposite Benedict Cumberbatch in the BBC Sherlock. He's a veteran stage actor in new writing but anyone fresh to his magnetic stage presence may be willing put aside reservations about the play. Anyone immune to him is likely to emerge considerably less enraptured.