Review by Raphael Kohn
I love a dark comedy. It’s my belief that explorations of the darkest and most uneasy themes through genuinely laugh-out-loud comedy are possibly the best way to confront our secret desires and fears. Michael Wynne’s Cuckoo, making its debut at the Royal Court Theatre in London, was certainly set to be up my street, with its themes of safety and uncertainty permeating the play as an omnipresent storm cloud. And by and large, this play ticks the boxes, with a wholly funny script and bleakly tense themes.
Arguably the best space for this work to premiere in, the Royal Court is quite rightly labelled ‘The Writers’ Theatre’, a space where the writing is first and foremost the centre of their productions. No different, Cuckoo boasts a script packed with hilarious, quick-fire lines. Set in Birkenhead, Cuckoo explores the relationships and views of Doreen, her daughters Carmel and Sarah and Carmel’s daughter Megyn, as they come together for a fish and chips dinner. It’s a simple enough premise, but quickly develops depth and intrigue.
Elevating hilarity out of the mundane, much of the characters’ conversations are of a fairly simple nature – the portions they will eat for dinner, the shops to buy items from, their jobs, and their romantic relationships. Omnipresent throughout are each characters' phones, which are constantly chiming with notifications galore, of messages, news flashes and phone calls. It’s certainly reflective of much of real life nowadays, with the never-ending ping and clang of our mobiles, reflecting our real-world anxiety about knowing everything, all of the time.
Perhaps the greatest strength of Wynne’s writing is how the subject matter can so effortlessly evolve. Seamlessly flowing from mundane conversations into dark discussions of the climate crisis, job security and trust, the characters constantly feel real and relatable, and I would challenge anyone not to see their relatives and friends in the characters’ mannerisms and idiosyncrasies. By frequently disarming the audience’s barriers with the normality of the situation, we become completely unprepared for when, mid-way through the first act, Megyn storms out of the room and hides upstairs in her grandmother’s bedroom for almost the entire show.
And so begins the tension, as Doreen, Carmel and Sarah discuss why Megyn has locked herself away and work through themselves as people. There is probably no better cast to do this than the assembled quartet: Sue Jenkins’ Doreen is amicably kind and engaging to watch, Michelle Butterly and Jodie McNee’s Carmel and Sarah (respectively) are a striking pair in their disagreements and Megyn, played by Emma Harrison in an excellent professional debut, is mysteriously quiet yet gives an excellent silent performance, never needing lines to express herself when her character is quiet. It’s a shame we see so little of her – she disappears for the majority of the play upstairs, but her performance onstage tells us everything we need to know to understand her character even when absent.
Yet, the greatest strength of these performers lies not in their individual performances and instead in their teamwork as an ensemble. A believable family, they play their parts as if they have been living together for years, with Wynne’s intersecting dialogue flowing with ease between the four of them. Lesser skilled performers may have had trouble with this – there could be great risk in the dialogue being stilted and unengaging in less talented hands – but the four of these performers do very well.
Vicky Featherstone, the Royal Court’s Artistic Director, takes on directing this with great skill. Letting the writing and acting take centre stage, the production places very little in their way to deliver naturalistic and humourous performances. Peter Mckintosh’s set, with its lifelike living room, gives way to some fantastic features, such as neon lighting surrounding the set and an intriguing, if underused, water feature.
But for all of its strengths, I couldn’t help but wonder if Cuckoo is slightly too opaque – too intelligent, perhaps – for its own good. Its ending, which I shall not spoil here, feels a touch out of the blue, and unresolved. Maybe that was entirely what Wynne was intending, that the unsafe world never really resolves and never gives us the satisfaction of real safety, and although I managed to piece together an understanding of the themes slightly better throughout my tube journey home after the performance, it just seemed slightly too clever and unexplained for me.
Undoubtedly, the standing ovation and rapturous last night felt deserved by its strong cast and, on the whole, Wynne’s writing. I certainly left the theatre amused and intrigued by its themes, and enjoyed the performance greatly. It’s a fascinating new play, and one that I’m sure will be just as equally well-received by its audiences in Liverpool after the Royal Court run concludes.
Cuckoo plays in the Jerwood Theatre Downstairs until 19th August, after which it transfers to the Liverpool Everyman Theatre from 6th September to 23rd September. Tickets are available from https://royalcourttheatre.com/whats-on/cuckoo/ and https://www.everymanplayhouse.com/whats-on/cuckoo
Photos by Manuel Harlan