HANNAH QUINN leaves this 5-star production “filled with a sense of the beauty of everyday existence”. And yes, she knows that sounds twattish, but she can’t help it.
Corpus Playroom, 7pm 22nd-26th January, £6/£5
Directed by Quentin Beroud
Simon Stephens’ writing has a strange effect on me. He makes me want to write sentences like “for two hours, the Corpus Playroom becomes a claustrophobic minicab” and “caught in the headlights’ glare, we listen with Jimmy to the stories of the ‘fares’ as they tell of the tragedy and the joy of urban existence”.
I’m going to try to resist that urge, because it’ll probably get in the way of telling you what a brilliant production this is. That’s partly down, of course, to Stephens: he is surely one of our greatest living playwrights and his script is the real driving force behind a production that, taking few risks, brings the words themselves to the fore and showcases some truly excellent acting.
Quentin Beroud’s directorial debut, set almost entirely inside a London minicab, is a tour de force of naturalism, from the subtle performances to the taxi on stage. It may not be a particularly bold directorial choice, but, done well, naturalism can be pretty bloody amazing, and Bluebird is done very well indeed.
Anyway, to say it was safe would be wrong. Bluebird is a brave undertaking. The central character, Jimmy, is on stage for the entire play. It’s easy to see how, in the hands of a lesser actor, that could go badly wrong. Fortunately for us, he is played by Tom Stuchfield, whose portrayal becomes ever more moving as Jimmy’s sardonic cabbie act gradually dissolves. Sarcastic, lonely, likeable, terrible: Stuchfield manages to be all at once. He’s so good, in fact, that he mostly avoids being outshone by his talented fellow cast members. Justin Blanchard and Laura Batey particularly stood out among several nuanced and engaging performances.
Stephens’ writing, too, beautiful as it is, is not without its difficulties. As I can tell you from vast experience, it takes a lot of skill to be able to say stuff like ‘do you believe in the communicability of the human spirit?’ without sounding like a prick. I can’t do it. Stuchfield and Blanchard do, and admirably.
Some of the best moments though, slightly unexpectedly, come courtesy of imaginative lighting: the second act begins with the protagonist bathed in a red glow, and later comes the solitary silent flicker of a cigarette lighter in the dark. Silent moments, words left unsaid: it’s often these moments that are most revealing. Beroud is unafraid, especially in the second act, to let pauses linger.
Perhaps that’s why this play is so quietly crushing: think slowly draining rather than dramatic gut-wrenching. There is also humour mingled with the heartbreak; Beroud and his cast get the balance of tone exactly right. Coming out of the show you don’t feel numb like one of Jimmy’s passengers, but filled with a sense of the beauty of everyday existence.
Obviously though, like the diligent reviewer I am, I couldn’t just appreciate the words and the set and the acting without finding at least one fault. So here it is: sometimes, once or twice, Stuchfield didn’t really look like he was driving a car. That’s it. And to be honest, I can’t even drive, so I’m probably wrong.
So if brilliant writing and brilliant acting and a feeling of quiet private devastation are your thing (and if you’re reading this then clearly they are), don’t miss this show. That is, if you can face the horrors of whole seconds of not-quite-realistic driving. Actually, you probably can’t. Don’t worry – I’ll have your ticket.