9th December 2017
Type of Production
Author: David Slater
This particularly wearisome little play managed to provide a particularly foul (or should that be fowl?) evening at the Arts Club, probably for all concerned but particularly, for an embittered audience who probably wondered what the point of it all was, or why anybody bothered to throw this tatty little melodrama on to the stage at all. The undoubted talents of all those at the Arts Club couldn’t combine to make anything of the rather feeble script and if Gibraltar Street’s stellar team struggled to make anything of this dreadful bit of nonsense, one wonders if anybody could. I’ll refrain from using the offending noun here dear reader but it’s often remarked that it’s an impossible thing to polish: when you can’t even roll it in glitter to try and cover up the nasty smell of failure, it’s time to admit defeat and flush it away.
Daphne du Maurier’s odd short novel - which inspired Hitchcock’s famous film - was the inspiration for this strange stage adaptation, keeping the title of the story from the original but precious little else. Three survivors (and one other brief visitor) from an avian apocalypse find themselves holed up on the New England coast, society having broken down thanks to a lot of pesky birds sticking their beaks in. The bird part of the equation was the McGuffin which was trotted out to explain this exploration of human lives thrown together against seemingly insurmountable odds at close quarters: so far so good you might think. Unfortunately, the constant scene shifting, the weak material and the sheer banality of it all undermined the whole enterprise, leaving us with no more than an evening pecking away drearily at some very thin dramatic millet.
Director Sarah Nolan did all she could to attempt to put across something of the human drama and the existential dread at work as raw emotions were unleashed in the confines of the bird beleaguered refuge. Performances were of the highest standard across the board and the set was also carefully crafted and wholly appropriate to the piece, thanks no doubt to the miracle workers at the Arts Club, dressed as always with the usual appropriate attention to detail. That everything came to naught is a failure of the script to really ignite and the fact that the episodic nature of each short scene required (what felt like) lengthy alterations to the stage in the gloom of the working lights of the Clubhouse Theatre.
Marie Rae gave a very thoughtful performance as Diane, an author seeking refuge against the bird attacks with her accidental partner in misfortune, Nat, played very effectively by Stephen Claxon. When newcomer Julia (Eilidh Hamer) enters the fray, the dynamic is shaken up and relationships between all three of the central characters shift and change throughout the play. David Pilkington excelled as Tierney, bringing a spark of life to the otherwise dreary proceedings in an all too short - but very important - cameo appearance. All the performers really did their best to bring their characters alive, advance the narrative and explore the themes of the piece: there wasn’t a slip in the quality of performance from anyone on stage all evening. Diane was a very ‘real’ character in the hands of Marie Rae and as the central character in the story, successfully carried the weight of the drama. Stephen Claxon was also impressive as Nat, managing to create a definite flesh and blood character from the thin script and if Eilidh Hamer was occasionally a little ‘stagey’ in putting her performance across, this worked in her favour as Julia was a character with a hidden agenda and a less than forthright or honest nature: Julia is a character who is, in a sense, ‘giving a performance’ too. David Pilkington’s Tierney was a much needed breath of fresh air on stage, a pitch perfect characterisation, providing a vital prop to the narrative despite his unfortunately all too brief appearance on stage.
Perhaps this incarnation of ‘The Birds’ could work as a 45 minute TV play: cutting between scenes, a few exterior shots to spice things up, a mournful soundtrack, opportunities for lingering pauses and arty shots of thoughtful actors staring into the abyss... Unfortunately, as a stage play, it’s a bit of a waste of time. Pinter does ‘people in a room’ much better than anyone else and it’s hard to fathom why it is that du Maurier’s novella has been used to hang this would-be post-apocalyptic psychodrama on. The plodding pace; the meandering scenes where something almost happens, then stops; the dreadful end to the first act; the weary and pointless journey to nowhere in particular... All these things, combined with the shuffling set dressing between scenes, made for a deathly entertainment which didn’t have a great deal to say. All of the mournful faults of the play could at least have been excused if there was any serious discussion of the human condition, of lives being lived on the edge of danger, explorations of ideas of love, friendship, loneliness, the survival instinct, deceit or duplicity. Unfortunately, the existential ennui spread from the stage out into the auditorium to an almost soporific degree.
When a confident and able cast with a talented director at the helm are scuppered by unsuitable material, no amount of technical brilliance (superb scenery, great bird effects, atmospheric radio interference etc) can help to rescue the piece. I applaud the Arts Club for their valiant efforts and for maintaining the darker feel as the winter offering in the season of plays but ‘The Birds’ really didn’t take off. Definitely something of a dead duck I’m afraid.