Simon Russell Beale delivers a must-see performance as a London taxi driver in Simon Stephens' skillfully crafted drama.
Beale plays Jimmy, a London cabbie on his standard night shift, but with something more pressing on his mind than usual. What's nagging at him is only slowly revealed, however, as Jimmy travels the less touristy pockets of London, picking up a colorful cross-section of passengers, many of whom act as if they've mistaken the taxi for a confessional and Jimmy for their absolving priest.
For example, only after an inebriated toff (Michael Countryman) whose daughter was murdered several years earlier unburdens himself and, later on, when a bouncer (John Sharian) with family matters preoccupying him eases his resentments, does Jimmy's pressing but muted concern begin to fully come to light.
Moreover, having used a few breaks to contact Claire (Mary McCann), the wife he completely abandoned after a heart-breaking incident five years earlier, Jimmy finally gets a brief reunion with her -- one he doesn't even hope will be conciliatory.
A chunky man with a round face whose features crowd together, Beale often looks at first glance in a role as if he's miscast, but his natural grace combined with an uncanny ability to slip seamlessly into a part always prevails. That's especially true here, where Jimmy's unprepossessing appearance and his unspoken aim to fade into his seat are crucial.While an astonishing number of his lines are limited to one, two or three words, Jimmy speaks his freest during the exchange with Claire, which takes up the last quarter of the script, and where the range of profound emotions Beale exhibits adds up to sheer artistry. Not incidentally, he's matched in this wrenching scene by McCann from start to finish.
The production is also helped enormously by director Gaye Taylor Upchurch, who uses the four chairs scenic designer Rachel Hauck provides (and little else) to maximal effect. Also aiding immensely is Ben Stanton, whose tricky job is keeping his lighting design on the move to simulate changing patterns as Jimmy endlessly navigates the shadowy streets.
In addition to Countryman and Sharian, who both contribute quick, flawless characterizations, the fine supporting cast includes Charlotte Parry in a comic turn as a surprisingly chatty prostitute, Kate Blumberg in another comic turn as an unhappy teacher, as well as Tobias Segal, Todd Weeks, and Mara Measor.
Admittedly, there are more than a few moments in Stephens' work that are contrived, sentimental or often both. But as a vehicle (no pun intended) for Beale and this skilled company, Bluebird proves to be a skillfully crafted ride.