Bradley Barlow | 08 Sep 2013 14:41pm
As a big Hitchcock fan, I jumped at the opportunity to review Conor McPherson’s The Birds, which had its UK premiere this week. This play, and Hitchcock’s masterpiece, are both inspired by the Daphne du Maurier short story of the same name but both veer off in different directions. The original story focuses solely on farmer Nat and his struggle to keep his family safe from flocks of birds attacking their home, eventually barricading themselves in the farmhouse kitchen. A confined tale, the story is around 15 pages long and, as McPherson told me in a recent interview with him, one that ends abruptly as if it were the first chapter of a much longer book. McPherson picks up the narrative a few weeks later and this is where we join the play.
There are very few similarities between McPherson’s Nat and his namesake in du Maurier’s original story. We open with Nat shivering under a sleeping bag, a high fever causing nightmares about his ex-wife. Gone is the reluctant hero of the original, replaced with a man living on the edge in a dangerous new world. There is an early glimmer of insanity when Nat reveals to have previously been institutionalised by his ex, insisting that she was in fact the mad one. McPherson often allows audiences to fill in the gaps in his plays but this particular thread was left dangling and was barely referenced again, a shame in this instance as Barney Hart Dyke’s performance was certainly capable of developing this further. Hart Dyke portrayed Nat sensitively throughout the play and was thoroughly believable as a man caught between two women vying for his attentions.
One of these women was Diane, a successful writer estranged from her husband and daughter, who we first meet helping Nat to recuperate from his illness. Much of the story is narrated by Diane’s voiceover as she scribbles away in her notebook, her private thoughts and platonic love for Nat developing as the story progresses. Penny Weatherall was excellent as Diane, driving the story forward as an almost matriarchal figure. In writing ‘The Birds’, McPherson was keen to tell the story from a woman’s perspective and shifting focus from Nat to Diane was a masterstroke, particularly with Weatherall’s beautifully measured performance. Her fear at the sudden and unexpected arrival of neighbour Tierney, a loner who had clearly been observing the house for some time, was mesmerising to watch. The short scene with Weatherall and Michael Rossi as Tierney was excellent, the latter striking an imposing figure in such an intimate setting, and provided the impetus for Diane to question the motivations of Julia.
A younger woman travelling with what sounded like a bunch of violent scavengers, Julia claimed to be seeking refuge from her former bedfellows but appeared to have ulterior motives and set her sights on older man Nat, her behaviour at odds with the bible reading persona she wanted to project. Emily Sarah Howarth delivered a believable performance but at times I felt she could have pushed herself a little further, particularly during her showdown with Diane or when flirting with Nat; she had a devilish ‘come to bed’ look in her eyes when it was required but could have provided a little extra sparkle at other times.
Director Jeff Graves has clearly worked hard with his actors with very worthwhile results creating all round very good performances. Tony Bennett and Gabriella Ihasz’s set design is impressive – wooden panels and a brown sofa instantly evoking a sense of Small Town America – brought to candlelit life by Antony Vine’s lighting design, as well as the actors’ solid American accents. I was particularly keen on the shuttered windows that opened to reveal cracks of light appearing through boards to protect the glass from the oncoming threat. However, the whole production remained consistently clean from beginning to end – I wanted to see Diane’s pristine white t-shirt get gradually grubbier, or Julia’s Tippi Hedren 60s-inspired beehive hair to become messy and wild as the days and weeks went on, but instead not a single hair came out of place. Similarly, I thought the set dressing needed to develop to suit the changing timescale of the play; when characters were talking about a shortage of food I could still see the same half a dozen tins on the shelf behind them that had been there since scene one. A dirtier and scarcer set would have enhanced the almost apocalyptic tone even further.
Before attending the performance, I was fearful that we would be subjected to seeing fake birds attempting to scare the audience, a notion that is laughable in its conceit. McDonagh informed me that the original Irish production used live trained birds at the climax – which worked well until Press Night when some flew into the audience and rafters whilst others sat stubbornly in their starting places. Following workshops with the play in Minneapolis, the author very wisely removed this element from the final published version and instead relies on the sound of the titular birds to provide the menace. Ian Ward sourced some very believable effects for his sound design and on the whole they worked well, although I would suggest Ward should not be too afraid of amplifying them and almost bombarding the audience into feeling the same claustrophobia as the characters in the play.
The Birds was a very enjoyable production overall, a play that lends itself excellently to Putney Arts Theatre’s intimate Studio Theatre. A few small changes here and there, although subtle, may have paid huge dividends, but this shouldn’t detract from what was a very good night of theatre.
Read more about The Birds, including my interviews with playwright Conor McPherson and director Jeff Graves, in a forthcoming issue of Sardines Magazine.
- : admin
- : 05/09/2013