FringeReview UK 2023
Michael Wynne bringing something full circle touches where the floating island of home and family might bring sanctuary, or last refuge before the cuckoos come and kick you out. A must-see, particularly for those who’ve not thought the Royal Court could rock with laughter.
Directed by Vicky Featherstone, Designer Peter McIntosh, Lighting by Jai Morjaria, Sound Designer and Composer Nick Powell. Movement Director Jonnie Riordan, Assistant Director Jade Franks. Associate Lighting Designer Tom Turner,
Deputy Stage Manager Katie Stephen, ASM Lottie Denby, Sound Operator Florence Hand
Till August 19th
A woman, her daughter and her daughter commune on mobiles waiting for fish and chips from the eldest’s other daughter. They say nothing but click, occasionally make another smile passing on a message. It continues for minutes. Once people did that with newspapers, but with the occasional remark. Michael Wynne’s Cuckoo directed by Vicky Featherstone till August 19th is a surprise swansong in her tenure here.
Here it’s the worlds those mobiles bring in that makes Peter McIntosh’s hyper-natural Birkenhead front-room set look more like a raft on a black sea of doubt, terrorism, abuse, catastrophe, global warming – all lapping round the play later; but with the colours turned up like early TV. Apt, since there’s elements of sitcom-writing by Wynne, equally at home in that medium. And in Act Two there’s a brief rainstorm as well.
But there’s much dark laughter too. It recalls plays once performed here, like POSH and Jumpy. And as many point out, the Court’s old kitchen-sink dramas – something Wynne’s always quietly subverted. And the last time three generations of women were portrayed here was Alice Birch’s astonishing Anatomy of a Suicide.
Most closely, though the resemblance to Clean Break’s Dixon and Daughters by Deborah Bruce, recently at the NTs Dorfman, is closer. Tonally Cuckoo is lighter than these two masterpieces, and doesn’t resolve as brilliantly as the latter. That’s its point, though one can’t help feeling an even finer play might result.
Single mother Carmel (Michelle Butterly, scorchingly pained and embittered) whose caustic one-liners ground the play and drive its wit, is exasperated. First by 17-year-old daughter Megyn – Emma Harrison, making an impressive stage debut by saying nearly nothing.
Second, there’s Carmel’s teacher sister Sarah. Jodie McNee flawlessly navigates high-mindedness traduced by sudden fear and selfishness when anything’s tripwired. Sarah’s credulity stretches to her equally high-minded eco-stepping head teacher Felicity. But most of all Sarah’s latest ideal, dentist Simon: “I think he’s a keeper”. That’s sparks a more earthy evaluation. “Dentists always have lovely teeth. He must be clever to be a dentist. Maybe not doctor-clever but he’d still have to be bright.”
That’s Carmel’s mother Doreen (Sue Jenkins phenomenally believable in every tiny gesture), whose house this is, who enrages Carmel when after rising tensions Megyn breaks from her mother’s strict control and barricades herself in her grandmother’s bedroom.
Carmel’s enraged that Doreen doesn’t initially mind, even to being texted to bring her food and sleeping on the sofa herself. Though Carmel accommodates and even Doreen finds after six weeks it’s beginning to pall.
But Doreen chuckles as she sells off another part of their past, unloading it step by step. Though she cradles the phone in a quaint way, unlike her daughters and granddaughter she’s mastered it too: it serves her to make sales and money the way we find she was never able to do whilst her husband was alive. Indeed, differing reactions to offstage and dead men is often about release or delusion, but either way absence might be a good thing.
It’s paradoxically Doreen who embraces change and organises her happiness, all by phone. Her daughters are fixated; her granddaughter wholly conditioned; to the extent she has only Facebook friends and lives as a recluse. But also how Megyn can only express her love of Carmel by crafting impossible captioned photos procured from Doreen, and dangerously ideating on her long-absent father.
Even Carmel’s casually informed by Boots via phone she’s become a zero-hour slave, as she records a losing battle with Superdrug even Doreen now frequents. Wynne’s point, that somehow the world presses in with a kind of terror that David Attenborough’s voice can’t assuage, undercuts the comic pitch and yaw of Cuckoo.
It’s a title that takes its name not just referencing how a granddaughter becomes a cuckoo in the nest and somehow stigmatised as being cuckoo – Carmel makes short work of her daughter “feeding some rare marsupial” “the mad daughter in the attic.” The cuckoo’s the very phones that somehow edge the women out of their own lives.
The house certainly haunts itself, extension of the phones’ electronic world; the characters register it too. Whether in the delicate slightly spooky score of Nick Powell, or Jai Morjaria’s lighting, which also blinds with a strip underneath the set, creating a hovercraft of light.
Denouements in part are predictable for Doreen and Sarah, more ambivalent for Carmel with trust to rebuild, and the absent core of Megyn to negotiate. Wynne’s purposefully left Megyn’s traumas unspelt. In performance her gestures are even further muted than Wynne left them, clearly to leave the trauma unsaid: abuse, bullying from school, her mother, or terrors of the earth hotting up; none quite unravel Megyn’s dread. It helps that all four performances are superlative.
Wynne’s point is clear. Though in human terms it’s not quite landing, it’s the metaphysical in this that attracts Featherstone. And the swapping of one incumbent in the attic for another underscores how there’s always someone seeking refuge in the family. And perhaps has to be.
We end where we began, in silence and minute, glacially shifting moments from Harrison and latterly McNee. Wynne’s bringing something full circle touches where the floating island of home and family might bring sanctuary, or last refuge before the cuckoos come and kick you out.
A must-see, particularly for those who’ve not thought the Royal Court could rock with laughter.