Theatre

Birdy Lyric Hammersmith
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A successful novel, then a film, Birdy hops on stage a relatively known quantity, but its previous incarnations are not the only reason for a feeling of deja-vu. With its flashback-scattered narrative, the focus on isolated childhood, debates around normality and madness, a near- catatonic central character and a combative psychiatrist, it's Equus with feathers.

The similarities are not just thematic. Birdy, too, is graced with a splendid design. Kevin Knight, who also directs, has created a huge metal set, a giant mesh-like disc encompassing a multi-level double revolve, sharply lit by Robert A Jones to evoke a variety of atmospheric spaces from a pigeon loft to a hillside to a prison. So far, so good, but where Equus was a very good bad play (great stagecraft, shame about the phoney philosophy), adapter Naomi Wallace struggles with structure.

Birdy (Matthew Wait) is in a military hospital after being wounded in action and for three months has been perched in silence on his bedstead. Unable to fly, he squats and beats his arms like wings and has to be fed. No one can get through to him until his old friend Al (Corey Johnson) appears. As the play progresses, Al talks him through their obsessively close childhood, neatly dramatised by dovetailing present scenes with key moments from their past, skilfully staged, with the impassioned Adam Garcia and Tam Williams impressively volatile as youthful versions of the men whose adult crises we are now witnessing. The overall arc of the play, however, is problematic. We learn of Birdy's obsession with birds and flight and Al's home-life, consisting of regular beatings from his father, but as the images pile up (fear, flight, escape, cages, abandonment), the narrative buckles under the weight of metaphor-overload. We know we are heading towards the final revelation but there is little sense of urgency. If, as in all good thrillers, you're going to defer gratification, the intervening dramas must keep you hooked but Wallace's grip isn't certain enough. Some of the storytelling is confusing, with pieces of the jigsaw appearing seemingly at random, with the result that when it finally arrives, the climax feels mistimed.

The hardworking cast could also handle closer direction. It's as if Knight found a pair of contrasting tones for each character and stuck with them religiously, leaving little room for detail and killing the pace. Several scenes gain significantly by being staged. Prose or film would be hard pushed to deliver the complex responses conjured by witnessing Al feed Birdy mouth to mouth, but for all its strengths, Birdy never quite takes off.

n To 17 Aug. Lyric Hammersmith, London W6. Booking: 0181-741 2311

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