Centre stage and bathed in a faint blue glow are the two rows of car seats that make up the interior of a Bluebird Nissan, the taxi owned by Jimmy MacNeil (played by Malcolm Freeman). Surrounded by crude, child-like chalk drawings of various London landmarks, the set of the Tabard Theatre’s production of Bluebird is, on first appearance, simple. Deceivingly so.
As Jimmy embarks on a night’s work as a taxi driver, the twisting London roads he navigates soon become paved with the tales and snippets of conversation that he has, as each of his customers, or ‘fares’ as he calls them, spill the stories that they usually keep hidden. The structure of the play is sporadic, intriguing and entirely innovative, which director Amanda Root both respects and exploits to its full potential. As the plot is revealed through flashes of other people’s lives — a 19-year-old girl’s dark and tragic past; a drunk guy’s account of injuring his hand; even the pensive, distant singing of a woman swaying in the backseat — humour is masterfully interwoven with a deeper, darker and much more violent undercurrent.
For most of the cast, time on stage is limited to the length of a conversation in a taxi, yet the award-winning playwright Simon Stephens (whose writing credentials also include the script for The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time) demonstrates how these five or ten minutes are enough to forge a connection between two human beings. Mark Griffin’s performance as a bouncer haunted by the visions of nightclub violence is particularly memorable; his stilted refusals to engage in conversation turn into a pained recounting of the night’s events.
Another ‘fare’ is a Jamaican train engineer with a degree in philosophy who asks Jimmy the delightfully unexpected question, “Do you believe in the incommunicability of the human spirit?”. As the play progresses in a series of conversation snippets, Bluebird becomes a sort of response, exploring whether it is possible for people to really talk to each other and form a connection, even if it is between the front and back seats of a Bluebird Nissan. Written in 1998, it seems that this question becomes even more relevant (and alarming) when you consider the rise of social networking sites and the increasingly technologically-dominated means of communication nowadays.
Although Rhian Morris’s set is not particularly grand or striking, it doesn’t distract from this play’s driving force: its flashes of storytelling. As a result, this production concentrates its energy in the right places by stripping back any unnecessary embellishments and shining a spotlight on the importance, and simultaneously, the possibility of human connection.
Even today, the “incommunicability of human spirit” remains a vast and terrifying possibility, yet Bluebird, in many ways, demonstrates the opposite. It is a play that champions the act of storytelling between people, and confronts the misconception that meaningful interaction is an impossibility in the taxi on your way home.
Bluebird is playing the Tabard Theatre until 30 May. For more information and tickets, see the Tabard Theatre website. Photo by Andreas Grieger.