first night

Bluebird

Donnchadh O'Conaill is impressed by First Person's production of Simon Stephens' urban drama

The anomie of the urban wasteland isn’t a theme which is particularly pertinent to life in Durham, but those in the audience who have spent at least one night drifting aimlessly through an eerie metropolis will find strong resonances in Bluebird. Simon Stephen’s first professional play refracts several such experiences through the prism of a taxi driver’s night shift.

 

The set was simple but with enough detail to frame the action: four blocks as seats in the taxi, with Paul Moss as the driver facing the back of the stage for almost the whole show, lost in a tangle of rear-view mirrors suspended in wiring. Seb Enser-Wight’s lighting varied nicely in tone and sharpness between scenes, with a strikingly understated use of blue, and two lovely moments with the mirrors – when they glitter like stars in the last scene, and when their shadows flutter up the back wall like butterflies just before the final blackout. The half-heard snippets of radio conversation were effective in establishing the initial ambience, though I felt it was a pity that these were subsequently replaced by generically pretty music.

 

Adam Usden expertly tailored the cast’s performances to the intimate setting (though the sotto voce delivery meant lines occasionally got lost), and coaxed out some excellent performances, particularly when facilitated by the script. It is hardly a coincidence that the two best scenes, those featuring Steffan Griffiths and the revelation at the end respectively, were those with the most dramatic tension. Griffiths’s manner was repressed, but revealing flickers of emotion as he unfolded his story, with judicious variations of pace and emphases. This was technically excellent acting, but more importantly, one felt he was drawing out the character’s emotion, rather than revealing the author’s.

 

A series of monologues, all delivered sitting down, brings the obvious danger of monotony. The production did not always avoid this, but Gareth Davies and Clare Reavey, in different ways, brought much-needed energy to their scenes. Davies, playing the first passenger to pick a fight with the driver, was perhaps the most expressive performer on the night, but showed enough restraint and use of pauses to avoid becoming too broad. My one criticism is that perhaps he didn’t develop the voice of the character enough in the second half of the scene, when more serious themes emerged. Reavey had the difficult task of playing a self-pitying, inarticulate character, and it was to her credit that she made her engaging. She got laughs from the audience early on, establishing our sympathy for Janine, before easing us into the pathos of the scene.

 

Paul Moss is on stage for the entire play, but we only engage with him gradually, and he only really gets a chance to take hold of proceedings in the final scene with his estranged wife Clare (Lucy Cornell). The direction here was impressive: Moss retaining his soft, almost taciturn manner, even when delivering a harrowing monologue; Cornell, who handled Clare’s emotional changes well, giving vital shape to the scene in her reaction to his story. The control displayed by the actors gave this exchange a riveting emotional charge, beyond anything previously seen.

 

All of which, in a roundabout way, brings us back to Stephens’s play itself. It had undeniable strengths, but I am not sure if it worked overall. This is partly to do with a structural issue facing any play written as a series of self-contained monologues: the scenes didn’t build into each other in a dramatic (as opposed to a thematic) manner, meaning that the last scene wasn’t the climax to the whole play, just one strand of it. Furthermore, I felt a more oblique approach would have helped in his treatment of the material. The play is about characters searching for meaning and connection, but Stephens makes it a little easy for himself by using characters so isolated or perturbed to begin with. Not that this should worry First Person Productions – they have mounted a show rich and challenging enough to deserve acclaim on its own merits.

 

29 October 2010

The views expressed in the reviews and comments on this page are those of the reviewer, and are not representative of the views of DST or Durham University.
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