As though in a scene from an old, old fairytale: a prince whose every demand is anticipated and met demands a perfect peach. Not too green, not too ripe, locally grown. The scene could be a parable for what money can't buy you – and in a more straightforward story it might be. But Simon Stephens' bleakly brilliant new play tells you both what money can buy, and what it can’t, chronicling a rock star's debris-strewn trail burnt through the lives of those around him.
Paul's act must be somewhere between Rufus Wainwright and Marilyn Manson; we never see him sing, but he staggers off stage in a drugged fug, vulnerable, black-clad and tousled, hinting at a soul-searching showmanship. Offstage, his soul searching is more limited. In Andrew Scott's endlessly fascinating performance, Paul has the impulsive vigour of a boy-king, determined to control people and events around him, but still to be amused and entertained. His mate Johnny, played by Alex Price with the half-affectionate, half-weary wit that years in the shadows will form, writes him songs and puts up with him when no one else will. Along the way, they pick up fans who are charmed, humiliated and discarded in turn. Jenny is a hotel waitress, former mathematician who turned from numbers because they were too unstable, too relative. Paul knows what she means. So much of Stephens’ text centres on money, and Paul’s inability to make sense of the millions he can command, and the power they give him over people around him – in one of a host of perfectly judged one-liners, he announces “I like Russians. There’s a precision to their use of money that I find really intoxicating.” And the limits of that power, too; the journalist Annalisa (Charlotte Randle) won’t kiss Johnny for his proffered “a hundred fucking thousand pounds” and leaves, piqued.
But Johnny only cares about his girlfriend Marnie, who Yolanda Kettle plays with dreamy, troubled, moneyed simplicity. When she gets hurt, as everyone Paul and Johnny encounter seems to, Paul’s descent begins. Carrie Cracknell's direction starts out arch, characters swiveling round on chairs to chime in as a sycophantic or mocking chorus. But her style loosens up as the play’s narrative becomes more and more subjective, while Ian McNeil's set rifts upon, unearthing a sickly Lethe of black gunge. MacNeil’s whole design is almost distractingly gorgeous – a brutalist triumphal arch or Stonehenge lit by Neil Austin in a multi-dimensional array of album cover friendly, polychromatic hues.
Simon Stephens spent his early twenties as the bass guitarist in Scottish art punk band Country Teasers – there’s a kind of reminiscing familiarity, almost, in Paul’s chat with his father Alastair about his days driving the band’s kit to gigs. With nuanced symmetry, Daniel Cerqueira plays both Alastair, begging a loan from Paul to the tune of £1,000 after falling prey to internet lenders, and David, Paul’s demonic manager, who presents Paul, mock-begging, with a bill of operatic proportions – scores of debt for ‘Flowers & Miscellaneous’ (drugs, of course) alone.
It’s almost as overwhelming looking at Stephens’ line-up of plays in recent years. He’s got four premieres in 2014 alone, suggesting he’s made his own kind of Faustian pact. But this text feels like he’s cutting loose from award-winning translations of Ibsen and novel adaptations to return to a part of his past, and do something a bit punk. Birdland is saturated with a distaste for money, and for the poisonous corrupting systems it makes that blow apart ideas of value and worth, only to suddenly rediscover them the second something goes wrong. It also feels incredibly personal, though – being wrapped up inside one lethally self-absorbed, but determinedly immortal mind. Seen through Paul’s eyes, the view is dazzling.