CUCKOO at the Royal Court
“Despite strong visuals, the dark comedy doesn’t say anything ground-breaking or particularly witty and the script”
Cuckoo, the latest play from Michael Wynne and directed by Vicky Featherstone, has an interesting concept. We are introduced to three-generations of a family living in Birkenhead as they sit around the dinner table, engrossed in their phones, eating a fish and chip tea. Doreen (Sue Jenkins), the sweet and unwittingly funny grandmother, waits on her two grown-up daughters – Carmel (Michelle Butterly) and Sarah (Jodie McNee) – and Carmel’s near-silent daughter Megyn (Emma Harrison, making her debut). Megyn, after another argument with her irascible mother, storms upstairs, locks herself in her grandmother’s bedroom and thenceforth will only communicate via text.
Why? The reason is never fully obvious, and the plot is, unfortunately, rather aimless. As the story unfolds, we do, however, learn more about the family’s history and possible theories as to what may have driven Megyn to such a drastic action, as well as exploring the sometimes-dangerous escapism that our phones can offer us.
Jenkins and McNee are the standouts here and their characters have the most interesting personal arcs. Doreen has used her phone to better her life – meeting a kind man who empowers her to speak her mind unlike her controlling husband of 45 years; whilst Sarah – the first to request that phones are put away at the table – is ultimately plagued waiting for a certain notification to come through.
Unfortunately, the relationship between Carmel and her daughter is not wholly believable. This is no fault of the actors who do a fair job of working the stilted dialogue but rather the effect of Megyn’s isolation for so much of the play. There is no opportunity to see a growth in their dynamic as Megyn simply isn’t present and when she is, she is mute or looking around wildly.
Despite the all-female cast, men loom in their lives. Sarah talks passionately about her father whilst – by contrast – Carmel complains about her lousy ex-husband. There is a suggestion that a man has hurt Megyn hence her retreat from public life, but this is never fully explored. Many big topics are mentioned in passing such as abuse and environmentalism, but no one issue is settled on long enough to be justly handled.
Phones feature heavily throughout the play. The characters hold them firmly in their hands even in the tensest of confrontations. As Sarah reveals her darkest moments to her niece, she cannot help but clutch her phone and check it hurriedly when it buzzes. Reality vs fantasy is a strong theme too – the family gather around a phone to watch a video of a recent terror attack and complain when the content isn’t graphic enough whilst Megyn posts lies online about the loving relationship she has with her mother to her thousands of followers.
This theme is hammered home by Sarah’s rather on the nose comment that perhaps Megyn locking herself away is a perfectly reasonable reaction to everything that’s ‘going on’ in the world.
The realistic set (Peter McKintosh) is a marvel. A beautifully constructed living room (complete with conservatory) and kitchen unit. The bottom floor is circled by a shallow pool of water into which rain cascades early in the first half. A hallway leads from the kitchen to the left-hand-side of the stage where a staircase leads its ascenders off stage. The audience is left to wonder what tragic sight is behind the locked doors of Megyn’s sanctuary until the very final scene. The lighting (Jai Morjaria) is good and well reflects the time or weather outside the home or the mood within its walls.
Nick Powell’s discordant sounds and folk versions of The Cuckoo create a great sense of overwhelm and anxiety that reflects that caused by the constant stream of information available on our portable devices. Different sounds are utilised to represent various apps pinging off such as a ka-ching when Doreen sells an item online, a quirk that is given sizeable meaning later on.
Alas, Cuckoo has not lived up to its promise. Despite strong visuals, the dark comedy doesn’t say anything ground-breaking or particularly witty and the script leaves much to be desired.
Reviewed on 12th July 2023
by Flora Doble
Photography by Manuel Harlan
Previously reviewed at this venue: