Cuth’s Drama Society’s production of ‘Birdland’ centres around rock star, Paul, as he comes to the end of his world tour. The height of his fame has made much of the world inconsequential to him and we see how his lack of empathy towards those around him starts to have serious effects.
The detailed and nuanced acting in this piece is easily its biggest draw. Alex Ottie’s vitality and constant intensity alone makes the play worth watching, and the fact he never leaves the stage in either half of the show is equally commendable. Ottie’s depiction of Paul is not simplistic, as could be easy with such an outrageous character; he relishes little details such as his arms shaking, stutters, and his emotive eyes which can be shining, bulging or entirely blank. Occasionally the extreme passion seen in Paul’s outburst makes his diction slightly difficult to hear, but the vigour with which he commits to these moments makes it forgivable.
Cameron Ashplant as Johnny acts as a notable contrast, effectively playing his character in a more muted way. He especially comes into his own in the second half when he finally outbursts, managing to do so in a remarkably controlled manner. He succeeds in sustaining the appearance of Johnny’s growing irritation with Paul, gradually gaining in impetus through his reactions.
Hatty Tagart also shows an impressive character arc in her depiction of Jenny. She, again, thrives in the more aggressively charged scenes when she cannot stand Paul’s behaviour any longer. Her facial expressions in these confrontational moments are strong and decisive, making the tension between herself and Ottie particularly poignant.
Ariana Van Biljon effectively characterises Marni and her infatuation with Paul as an individual; her sudden change in character is deftly handled and her appearance at the play’s end is suitably haunting. The way all the characters respond to Paul’s attitude is a highly interesting detail in the play; from Marni’s nervous laughs, to Johnny’s sweaty palms and Jenny’s scowling looks.
The remainder of the cast have the difficult task of multi-roling and this does, on the whole, work effectively. There are occasions where they slip out of accents, with the exception of Will Bloor’s strong Scottish dialect, as the range they cover is vast. Freya Hall tackles the most characters and manages to achieve differentiation through her dynamic facial expressions, although her vocal tone is often too similar even within a scene itself. Issy Flower shows ability in conveying diverse types of character, mainly through her stance, at times strong and assertive and at others suggestive and sexual. Will Bloor always brought a new energy with his presence onstage, showing great ability for vocal change and sensitivity. As he reminisces over a deceased individual, his eyes appear glazed and non-present.
The direction by Charlotte Hartley and assisted by Eliza Davies is very strong in terms of idiosyncrasies for the actors, as is displayed by the highly capable multi-roling, but the show’s overall aesthetic could have been stronger. Hartley insists in her director’s note that they have honoured Stephens’ original stage directions, which indicate that “the stage should be spare and abstract rather than mimetic or naturalistic” and “every scene must follow immediately, one into the next without any pause or any indication of movement through space or time.” This should not, however, be a get-out clause for the overall flow of the piece. The scene changes can feel disjointed and movement of the set could be explored more, as it occasionally looks clumsy. The use of projection onto a rippled curtain, however, is particularly effective as it produces the kind of warped effect that we also see in Paul’s mindset as he becomes increasingly disillusioned, but this impressive effect could have been utilised more.
Overall, the production is a very well-acted and thought-provoking play, which thrives on its characterisation in such an intimate venue. The high intensity and energy of the piece makes it well worth watching and a riveting night out.
Image: Cuth’s Drama Society