Corpus Playroom, 7pm, until Sat 26th January
We all know that interaction with a taxi driver can be a strange experience, and more than one of us is probably guilty of resorting to the two inevitable questions that comedian Peter Kay immortalised in his taxi driver sketch: "Been busy?" and "what time are you on till?" The central character of Bluebird by Simon Stephens may be a cabbie, but the questions the play asks run much deeper than they usually do in casual customer conversation. The 'fares' are from all different parts of the country with a variety of accents, professions and worries. The only thing they have in common is a desire to get away from London, and a conviction that there must be answers to the problems they face, if they only knew where to look. Often in desperation, they ask their driver for the answer to the question that Guv'nor (Quentin Beroud, standing in for an ill cast member) poses at the beginning: "Do you have any idea what it all means, any idea at all?"
Tom Stuchfield plays Jimmy, who at first seems to be an average man just trying to do a job. Stuchfield is excellent at being by turns bored, amused and intrigued by the people he ferries round for a living. Each of them brings something new to the drama, making the first half a true tragicomedy as it flits from flirty and funny Angela with unexplained bruises on her face, played with gusto by Laura Batey, to exaggeratedly misanthropic bouncer Andy, who Chris Born brings to life with a convincingly threatening stage presence. Their stories, liberally sprinkled with swear words and occasionally told while inebriated, weave a vision of London as a patchwork society permeated with violence and drugs and only just holding itself together.
For the vast majority of the play there are only two actors on stage and, together with the sparse set containing just a taxi designed by Rob Eager, this creates an atmosphere of emotional and psychological pressure. It is safe to say that Stuchfield entirely changes the audience's notion of his character as he interacts with others and his tragic past involving his wife Clare is slowly revealed. He evolves from a mostly sympathetic listener, whose own personality is subsumed by the problems of his passengers, to a complex character in his own right. Wringing such nuance out of a performance that requires him to pretend to drive a taxi for the best part of two hours takes great skill. Clare is played by Helen Charman as a nice counterpoint to the people who tumble in and out of Jimmy's taxi. She has no detectable regional accent, which marks her out as different, and, surprisingly considering the nature of her role, she probably brings more humour to the play than any other character.
If I have a complaint to make about this production, it was that the dramatic tension, which director Quentin Beroud had built up so well, faltered in the very final scene. Whether it was that there was something lacking in the dynamic between Stuchfield and Charman, or that their stepping outside the cab broke the spell, I suddenly felt awkward rather than moved. Still, overall I recommend this production, which is most effective when it is bitter sweet, balancing the comedy of everyday social interaction with a truly harrowing exploration of love, loss and forgiveness.