Bluebird by Simon Stephens – review

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Is there a more faceless figure of urban life than the taxi driver? They generally get a rough deal. In Will Self’s The Book of Dave a London cabbie is the epitome of idiocy, choosing the ramblings of a taxi driver to service his satire on religion, while the most famous portrayal of a taxi driver, Robert de Niro’s in Martin Scorsese’s classic Taxi Driver, is a man completely unhinged, to say the least.

Simon Stephens’s Bluebird, however, presents an altogether different story, the taxi driver as a wellspring of humanity; kindly engaging and entertaining his ‘fares’ – a mother mourning the murder of her daughter, say, or a bouncer – all the while probing the city’s sewers and the lives that fester down below. The script is subtle. No speeching, no declamation, only the heartfelt compassion and comedy of everyday of life, a theatrically pointillist approach that comes together to create the colour of the city.

Our taxi driver, Garry Jenkins’s understated Jimmy, is an ex-writer who, after a personal tragedy, deserts his family and moves into a taxi; there he has lived an anonymous existence bearing witness to tragedies equal to his own for five years, until he is riven by a desire to seek out his estranged wife. Their final, climactic meeting is one of a palpable poignancy which only rarely have I seen pulled off without descending into the saccharine and the soap.

It takes a director as talented as Andrew Whyment to do so. The fast-motion sequences depicting scenes from the city – the nightclub, the coffeeshop, the cheap hotel – show up all the city’s seediness, against which all the while stands Jimmy, brimming with humanity. Of course, in case Jimmy sounds too good to make for good drama, rest assured he has done something horrific. The Church Fathers retreated into the desert to repent; is Jimmy modernity’s equivalent to the John Chrystostoms of yore, retreating into the heart of the city? Jimmy’s wandering existence is so evocatively caught in designer Helen Coyston’s marvellous mise-en-scène; a dismantled taxi cab, stripped bare and transparent, at stage centre, on which, throne-like, sits the king of cabbies, Jimmy. A fare you won’t regret paying.