Winging it

There's a pleasant blend of whimsy and punch in Blackbird, even if it could afford to chill a little, says Lily James 

Imagine Memento, staged by the cast of Moonrise Kingdom, and you’re in a decent place to understand the idiosyncrasies of Blackbird.

Lily and Henry have had their hands stolen. This is a bad thing for them, but a good thing for everyone else, as the Blackbird who stole their hands is healing the world through superlative piano-playing. No one is particularly keen to help them get their hands back: either because they are wrapped up in their own universes of dress-up, pedantry and puns, or because of a shadowy clinical agenda.

At times it feels like Miriam Schechter is suggesting that The Devil Makes Work for Idle Thumbs: use it or lose it, science is repossessing limbs for those that can really make the most out of them. The idea of a greater good is questioned.

Then it seems like No One Really Has a Hand-le On Things: Lily and Henry are on the fringes of the adult world. Are they too old? Or too young? They experience the universe as chock-a-block with pretenders and phoneys who use word-salad to cover for the fact that the world is big, and scary, and full of war and horror.

The Professor has an algorithm for atrocity because the news always reports it wrong. He’s the smartest man in the world and he’s wearing a sheep’s mask: it's not subtle but the symbolism works.

There are police officers who aren’t police officers, who dress like police officers in their down time, just as police officers dress as non-police officers in their downtime.

Got it?

The supporting cast display a tendency to rattle off these lines a little. They could afford to revel in its Jabberwocky logic for a little longer. They could all chill a little.

They could chill, because the internal logic of Blackbird is sound and smart. It operates within the best possible blend of whimsy and punch. Characters have iPhones, jobs and give each other the finger, and yet blackbirds steal their hands. This is a neatly done balancing act that prevents the initial premise from becoming twee.

A particularly wonderful moment is Jack Solloway as Henry hanging up the phone with his nose. The fact there’s a different nose movement for picking up and dropping the call is thoughtful and nicely wrought. It’s funny. I’m charmed.

Likewise, the scenes in which Henry (Solloway) and Lily (Lindsay Manion) use one hand each to tie his undone shoelace are just swooningly lovely. Manion and Solloway convey a truckload of complex feelings via these set-pieces: their naivety, their resilience, their intimacy. They suggest that this action of making do might even be radical.

These tiny, special set-pieces should and could be setting the tone for the physicality of the entire play. Instead, they are nearly lost in what becomes a lot of running and falling, at a pace that causes fluffed lines more than a couple of times. It could be tighter, and the cast are proven to be capable of it.

Lindsay Manion stems the relentless pace of wordplay and running under tables. She’s dazed and confused, but doesn’t ever descend into textbook kookiness. Manion makes the right move by playing her in minor key: in a world where everything is angular and arch, she’s rounded and sincere.

Solloway, too, is a seriously likeable performer. Henry’s a nuanced, tragicomic creature: all long legs, damp eyes and fortitude. Solloway’s naturalistic delivery shows a real investment in Schechter’s universe. When it’s finally spoken aloud, “Nobody knows what they’re talking about. Ever” is said with such conviction that it stops being a truism and feels at least a little profound.

Otherwise, Laurence Hunt is the big standout from the supporting cast. The restaurant scene, half Harold Pinter’s The Birthday Party, half the “It’s wafer-thin” sketch from Monty Python. It’s this scene in which the word-gaming is the most lucid: by the time Hunt speaks the line “it’s policy” about burning chairs that menopausal women have sat on, it’s really funny. It’s a joke that benefits from having been a little while in the making.

The play I was confident I was watching, where two people go to find the Blackbird that stole their hands, seems to stagger into a narcotic Sleeping Beauty story that undercuts the structure of the story we were being told before. Or, it stops making a lot of sense.

Will the Blackbird’s music save the world? Or the research that Professor is carrying out on Lily’s hand? Why does Henry’s sacrifice of his hand make the Blackbird reveal itself? Does Lily stay with the doctor or get out?

The play’s revelation, a move into real world of a forgotten relationship, a loyal husband, a hospital bed, should answer some of these questions, but I was longing for the continuation of the story of the Blackbird and the stolen hands. The conceit of the fantasy world is dropped like a hot coal, and I missed it. I had blue balls.

But again, it’s the moments of well-realised physicality that bring unity. As the Blackbird (Emily Compton) leaves the piano, its unfamiliar hands are alive, fingers twitching. Here, the Blackbird mask is absolutely optimised. By comparison to her paper skull, Compton’s hands look pink, human. Which of course, they are. It’s great, horrible, magical.

Everybody! Give them a big hand! 

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Photo credit: Giulia Delprato