Being shown into The Space at the start of Bluebird one is immediately unsettled. For a start we’re coming in through a side door, not the usual main entrance. Then the house is in almost complete darkness. Given the flexible nature of the seating at The Space it’s hard to work out where the seats are and then to get to an empty one without stepping on people or stumbling into the stage!
Simon Stephen’s early play (he went on to write the stage version of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time) concerns Jimmy, a mini cab driver. In the first half he picks up various passengers or ‘fares’ in what is essentially a series of sketches. From each we learn something of the story of the ‘fare’ and their world view, whilst also gleaning a little more each time about Jimmy. He, it seems, is trying to get in touch with his wife, from whom he’s been estranged for five years. In the second half – a two-hander between him and his wife – we learn what happened five years ago and the effect this has had on them both.
The play could easily translate to radio with almost no editing. But director Adam Hemming has cleverly staged things not only to add visual variety but to contribute another layer to our understanding of the story. The stage is two runways crossing each other. A literal crossroads in Jimmy’s life. The different sketches are set at various ends of the arms of the cross. In each case the minicab is made of just a few chairs, supplemented by one or two car elements to create Jimmy’s beloved Nissan Bluebird: a steering wheel in one case, a gear lever in another; mirrors, lights, radiator grill. We are being asked to see the sketches as a puzzle from which we can assemble not only a car, but Jimmy’s life. And indeed, at the climax of the play all the car’s parts of there on the stage.
Jonathan Keane’s performance as Jimmy is key to the success of the piece. He is beautifully understated. With little to say in the early part of the play his reactions to the revelations of his passengers are all we have to go on. As the sketches progress we have in truth probably learned enough to see where the plot is heading, but he lays the clues in front of us gently and thanks to Keane’s performance we soon find ourselves really invested in his world.
Others in the first half are passengers in his cab. All convincingly performed with a particularly touching scene from Mike Duran as a grieving father. The play is not without humour. Nathan Hughes in his acting debut gets a good laugh at his incredulity on discovering there’s more than one branch of Marks and Spencer. And a short sketch in which a couple in the back seat are seething over some previous argument and then make up is economically told using just cleverly nuanced expressions and only seven words of dialogue.
The second half sees Jimmy and his wife meeting for the first time in five years. Anna Doolan as Clare has been affected by what Jimmy did and the pain is writ large in her performance. We live this pain with her and she carries much of the emotional weight of the second half on her shoulders.
The framing device of the minicab may for some feel a little contrived, but it creates a particular sense of confinement and pressure which suits the piece and is only enhanced by the physical confines and heat of The Space auditorium itself. References in the script to the heat of the summer (the play was written in 1998) are apt!
Bluebird is at The Space theatre in London’s docklands until 4 August 2018.