Alan Parker's 1984 film adaptation of William Wharton's first novel is now largely (and undeservedly) neglected – but not by Kevin Knight, who directs this stage version. The rooftop scenes on a high-level gantry may coincidentally resemble the same scenes on film; it may even be mere happenstance that the actor cast as army psychiatrist Dr Weiss (Peter Banks) bears a startling resemblance to his celluloid counterpart, although Banks turns in a more subtly graded performance; but to use a poster/programme image which effectively reproduces that of Parker's work surely goes beyond mere brand-recognition.
Elsewhere, though, the play comes into its own. Where Parker simplified Wharton's novel into a superior, offbeat buddy-movie with incidental commentary upon the horrors of the Vietnam experience, adaptor Naomi Wallace remains faithful to the book's World War Two setting and concentrates on the puzzled homoeroticism of the relationship between the central duo, Al and Birdy. This reaches its peak when the latter – locked in a mental hospital, imagining himself to be a bird – silently demands to be fed avian-style from Al's mouth, leading to the most disturbing male-to-male kiss many of us are ever likely to see on stage.
Knight's stage design is remarkable. A huge, crazily sloping circular grille takes up most of the Lyric studio's playing space; on this upper level young Al and young Birdy (played by separate actors from their older, wounded selves) play out their teenage activities, as we see Birdy's increasing fascination with his feathered friends and his obsession with flying himself. The grille cants up to reveal beneath it, on a revolve, Dr Weiss's surgery and Birdy's cell. Scenes can be played simultaneously above and below; on occasion, young Al even ventures down to stand behind Sergeant Al, acting as his inner voice.
Corey Johnson makes a rather fine Sergeant Al, literally defaced during the war and crippled by his hot temper. Johnson gives Al a Montgomery Clift-like dimension of something always kept just out of plain sight. Matthew Wait as the older Birdy has the crouching and flapping down perfectly, but in his mute responses to Al he retains an element of calculation. It comes as little surprise that, when Birdy returns to "humanity" in the final scene, he can dismiss his delusion as pretence; no matter how the line is meant, Wait's earlier performance gives it a literal truth. The couple's younger counterparts, Adam Garcia and Tam Williams, are competent but unexceptional.
Naomi Wallace may, to an extent, be marking time before her next original play, but Birdy – despite its awkward ending – is nevertheless one of the better studio shows on display this summer.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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