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Review: The Cord (Bush Theatre)

Review by Sophie Wilby


Following his writing debut in 2019 with The Arrival, Bijan Sheibani returns to the Bush Theatre with one-act play The Cord. That is not to say he hasn’t been busy these last five years, perhaps most noticeably joining the writing team for the Netflix adaptation of David Nicholls’ One Day. 

In The Cord, Ash (Irfan Shamji) is a new father plagued by the uncertainty of his place within the new family dynamic. He is jealous of the natural connection his wife Anya (Eileen O’Higgins) shares with the baby whilst he struggles to find his own. As the sleepless nights of new parenthood ensue with petty arguments erupting into furious fights, Ash begins to unravel.

Though at the beginning, we see him as a light-hearted, humorous character, singing his own version of Kelis’ ‘Milkshake’ to entertain his breastfeeding wife (something which is tempting me to lower my star rating as I catch myself humming along to the tune on repeat). This humour, however, turns strained and awkward as the audience’s laugh becomes uncomfortable in response to his growing irrationality. He becomes quick to unexplained anger as he struggles to express himself to those around him. And therein lies the real interest of his character, and of The Cord itself. 

He is both a frustrating and sympathetic character. His initial feelings as he adapts to parenthood are easily understandable yet as the story progresses, his reasons for them become perhaps less so. Within the 80-minute run time, we learn that his own mother, Jane, (Lucy Black) suffered from postnatal depression and his resentment of her for this seemingly drives his struggles with his own child. It is not until their final argument that his mother finally helps Ash to see how his behaviour mirrors her own. As he criticises her for making the joy of a baby about herself following his own birth, she counters that he is doing exactly the same thing. This somewhat simple revelation seems to resolve Ash’s mental distress, as he apologetically returns to his wife and we end on a tender moment between him and his son. 

Undoubtedly, the raw emotionality of the play should be celebrated; I will always applaud theatre that explores the underserved topic of men’s mental health. It is a shame though, that the emotional climax of the play feels somewhat hollow. Ash is pretty unpleasant to the two women in his life and his brief apology to his wife does not feel sufficient for his actions. The hollowness of this ending also perhaps stems from the little backstory we get from his mother and how her own mental illness impacted Ash. We can infer that he is unpacking some sort of childhood trauma, but we never really understand the extent of this which only serves to portray Ash as insensitive to his mother’s struggles. 

Sheibani has proven himself to be a talented writer, and The Cord is no different. Whilst there may be elements of the relationship dynamics that feel underdeveloped, Sheibani’s success is in creating dialogue that feels naturalistic. From the subtlety of petty jabs to the explosive accusations, there is much to relate to in his dialogue that makes it feel genuine throughout - as though we are truly lifting the lid on a family home and seeing it unravel. 

The trio of Shamji, Black, and O’Higgins deliver compelling performances, each navigating a complex range of emotions with seeming ease. Fundamentally, this is Ash’s story and Shamji does incredibly well to garner both sympathy and frustration throughout his performance. His visible nervousness with twisting hands and lowered head develops into a more imposing physicality which serves to support the development of sympathy and frustration. Black similarly uses her physicality to garner our sympathy, gradually appearing weaker throughout the performance as we learn of her health issues (though it is unclear if it is more of a physical or mental illness). O’Higgins plays the role of a new mother naturally as she tries to contain her own frustrations with Ash for the sake of the family. 

The staging (Samal Black) is simple, a carpeted square with chairs in every corner in which the actors sit when not on stage. And here too we still their skill as performers, reacting to the action on stage as though they were the audience themselves, almost directing us in how to react. It is reminiscent of a boxing ring, with Jane and Anya tapping in and out in their turn to argue with Ash. 

The lighting (Oliver Fenwick) above the ring beautifully dims and shines, almost pulsating, between lighter pinks to darker blues which seemingly represent both day and night as well as Ash’s changing disposition. The tension within Sheibani’s writing is heightened by a single cellist (Colin Alexander) who provides a soft yet sometimes haunting backdrop to the action. In combination, the music accompaniment and lighting serve to heighten the intimacy of both the family dynamics and the in-the-round staging which leaves nowhere to hide. This feeling is supported by the use of simple, casual costuming with each actor barefoot reinforcing the feeling of being at home. 

 A raw and intense evaluation of family dynamics in the wake of a new baby, The Cord is another success for Sheibani who delivers a sensitive script even if it is one which leaves certain characters feeling underdeveloped. Relatable and understandable even to someone who has not been in that position, its 80-minute run times flies by. If you can put up with having Milkshake stuck in your head then it is easily worth a visit to the Bush Theatre. 

The Cord plays at the Bush Theatre until May 25th

For tickets and information visit

Photos by Manuel Harlan



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