Simon Stephens (Paul Sloss) is seeing a psychiatrist, Dr Peters (Stephen Atkins) in what the audience is told is a subsequent visit, though in When The Birds Stopped Singing it feels like a first visit, as the session is used as a framing device to give structure to a plot revealed almost entirely through a series of monologues. Having a series of direct addresses to the audience interspersed with sections of the conversation between the psychiatrist and his client may have effectively deprived the rest of the cast of bouncing off one another’s lines through dialogue. It is, nonetheless, a method, even if slightly overused here, of holding the attention of a live audience. Interestingly, the production has also been filmed: in my view, it would work better as a radio play.
The play does well to reveal the storyline in stages, even if the warped theories of Sigmund Freud came to mind as the psychiatrist wanted to delve into Simon’s childhood memories. The audience hears, at length, from his father Tom (Phillip Gill), and his mother Alison (Jenny Perry) – the former has felt “jealousy and resentment” as he felt the arrival of baby Simon displaced the love and intimacy that once existed between him and his wife. Alison, needless to say, showered Simon with love and attention, which eventually only compounded the dislike – no, hatred – between father and son, both ways.
Enter Kim Reynolds (a highly engaging Bethany Staton), who became good school friends with Simon, having warmed to what she perceived to be his “vulnerability” and “sensibility”. Phillip Carter (Ray Calleja), who bullied others as well as Simon, has become a repeat offender, and in his own story manages to reveal much about how the prison system didn’t so much reform him as embolden him: “I am respected in here [a young offender’s institution]”. Granted, he may well merely be a legend in his own mind and have ideas above his station. Either way, it would have been beneficial if the play had found a way of uncovering more about his background in order, as it has done with Simon, to determine the root causes of his current situation: how did he get to where he is now?
At some point, Simon grew up and moved out of the family home and moved in with his partner Ben. I’m still not sure what to make of not portraying Ben and thus not hearing his side of the story, however implausible it may have been. The production has also chosen not to try to depict or re-enact instances of domestic violence, instead relying on kindly neighbour Cicely Walters (Jacqueline Parram) to tell the audience about a chance meeting with Simon in which she felt compelled to enquire about a large bruise on his face. As the show has been deemed unsuitable for persons under the age of 18, staging an example of what happened (like one of those ‘reconstructions’ of criminal activity that used to be televised on a BBC programme called Crimewatch UK) would have been hard-hitting – in more ways than one.
That said, as the human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell pointed out after the “world premiere performance” (his choice of words), the play is more effective than a speech, article or leaflet would have been. Some immensely important and relevant contemporary issues are fleshed out in a credible and harrowing narrative.
London lad, loving life and all that it has to offer.