There is a reason why Simon Stephens’ plays are rarely absent from our theatres. It’s because they’re bloody brilliant in their exploration of the dramatic possibility of character. Like his hero Robert Holman, Stephens allows his characters to surprise him, meaning that they, rather than the writer, drive the narrative. Bluebird is no exception in this respect: the play is populated by people, or the ‘fares’ as taxi driver Jimmy refers to them, all of whom surprise themselves and us during their brief transits across London.
Over the course of a single evening, a father of a murdered girl who arrives to meet her killer upon his release, a bouncer who feels remorse for the violence of his colleagues, an underground engineer who believes in the ‘transience of love’ and the ‘communicability of the human spirit’, and a teacher who wants a baby but doesn’t care who fathers it, together with a plethora of bit-part backstreet comedic characters, all sit in Jimmy’s minicab as Stephens’ deftly traces the underbelly of London’s night-life.
But great writing in the wrong hands doesn’t make for great theatre and, while Two Shillings and Sixpence evidently revere Stephens’ text, they fail to make it live onstage. While the actors are continually surprising themselves, they lack the edge to surprise their audience. Only Jimmy remains unsurprised, his feigned interest only just registering in Malcolm Freeman’s understated performance. Understatement can be an asset, especially if played in antithesis to the circumstances, but here Freeman’s happy-go-lucky Jimmy jars alongside Selina Giles’ distraught Clare, their onstage dynamic faltering in those final scenes where Stephens’ writing is at its strongest. Even at his most vulnerable, Freeman’s Jimmy is markedly devoid of guilt; while Giles’ Clare lacks the anger that would give her impassioned outbursts credence.
Despite the best efforts of a relatively strong supporting cast, the play never really gets going, so that by the time we reach Jimmy’s near-reconciliation with Clare, it seems less like a main event and more like another in a long line of irrelevant cameos. Admittedly, the play’s set doesn’t make for an action-packed performance, yet rather than using Rhian Morris’ design to its advantage, Amanda Root’s direction is hamstrung by it, and fails to capitalise upon those scenes which take place outside the taxi.
For all their close attention to Stephens’ text, Two Shillings and Sixpence have produced a thin version of a great play, one which raises questions about revivals in general: why reproduce an established hit with the same emphasis and interpretation as the original, especially when there is no anniversary or relevant event which might justify a retrospective, and when the writer in question has moved on to considerably more ambitious projects?