Birdland, by Simon Stephens | Directed by Anthony Skuse

New Theatre (www.newtheatre.org.au) | New Theatre, Newtown, Sydney | Until 4 November

Birdland is a 2014 drama by British playwright, Simon Stephens, investigating and navigating the dangers and downside of the glamour of the rock-and-roll industry. We are precariously seated alongside the central character, Paul (Graeme McRae), on a rock-and-roll rollercoaster.

When we first encounter Paul he is on tour and has been for many months. He will be heading home soon but currently is in a yet another hotel room — sorry, suite — in Moscow, followed by a suite in Berlin and then another suite in Paris.

Anthony Skuse’s simple and functional set design shrewdly displays the uniformity of Paul’s surroundings and lifestyle. A wooden platform, exquisitely constructed by Jack Millynn, evokes the barrenness of Paul’s life. This raft-like structure is beautiful and highly polished and keeps afloat Paul’s accumulating excesses.

We view Paul’s internal drama through numerous short scenarios, all of which document his life of excess, fuelled by drink and drugs. McRae’s outstanding performance charismatically delivers and details the many paradoxes that Paul faces.

It is a physically powerful, energetic and charismatic performance that actively attempts to avoid cliché and instead clearly accentuates the toll that all the years of power and excess have delivered.

McRae, is supported and buoyed by a strong ensemble cast playing many parts. His long-time friend Johnny (Jack Angwin), who facilitates and is mostly sidelined, delivers an appropriately understated performance, whilst the other five cast members — Charmaine Bingwa, Leilani Loau, Louuise Harding, Airlie Dodds and Matthew Cheetham — all render passport photos of characters who people Paul’s lifestyle.

Of special note is a scene with two detectives, DC Ricer (Leilani Loau) and DC Evans (Charmaine Bingwa) delivering a welcome encounter with the theatre of the absurd.

As one has come to expect, Anthony Skuse directs with clarity and assurance and maintains that the two-hour-plus show, with no intermission, remains buoyant.

Ultimately, Simon Stephens’ script lacks depth and precision in character portrayal, and as a result dramatic tension is rarely truly present. Rather the characters inevitably drift into stereotypes, but despite these compositional flaws the production values, cast and crew make this a most worthwhile visit to the theatre.

Images: Chris Lundie.