Cuckoo by Michael Wynne at the Royal Court Theatre

Here we have a ménage a quatre set in that strange modern hinterland of smart phone central: Cuckoo is an intensive exploration of mother-daughter-granddaughter-sister relationships. We are hosted through a pageant of soft-core middle-class angst in all its Waitrose glory through the ritual consumption of fish and chips from the Chippy down the bottom keeps Michael Wynne’s script firmly grounded in the lower echelons of said middle class: no avocados here.

Cuckoo: Michelle Butterly, Sue Jenkins, Jodie McNee, Emma Harrison. Credit Manuel Harlan.
Cuckoo: Michelle Butterly, Sue Jenkins, Jodie McNee, Emma Harrison. Credit Manuel Harlan.

The play is as delicious as those fish and chips. Every scintilla of dialogue is acutely and, quite often, embarrassingly recognisable and the laugh-out-loud one-liners keep the audience mesmerised throughout. But this is all expertly interwoven with the aspects of relationships that, once again, we all instantly recognise.

Doreen is the matriarch, a very low-key, dressing-gown and slippers type of matriarch who lurks behind a veneer of innocence before, every now and then, lurching out to fell her prey (either daughter) with a softly-spoken put-down. Sue Jenkins makes the role her own from the off and the subtlety she brings to the character is a wonder to behold. Her mimed solo cameo with a hand-held mirror and her own personal shake-a-leg routine is hilarious.

Doreen’s unmarried daughter Sarah, a perennial exponent of ‘men-trouble’, is played with hubristic gusto by Jodie McNee. McNee goes from parody to pathos and back again in the blink of an eye. She wavers between complete positivity and downright inadequacy in such a way that we feel magnetically drawn to her as we recognise all these shortcomings in our own lives and all those things we were going to do but never quite did. An excellent, engaging portrayal by McNee.

The daughter, Megyn (there’s middle class for you) – the cuckoo of the story – is played with what may best be described as anti-panache by Emma Harrison. It’s an unforgiving role and Harrison does it more than justice. It teeters on the verge of being a non-speaking part but Harrison is able to get across – in look, nod and gesture – the full gamut of teenage anti-life fuelled by a smart-phone-social-media-fantasy-scape and cheered on by 2000 virtual ‘friends’ who convince you that you never need to leave your room. Harrison gets it, and gets it across so that we get it – a moving performance.

As her mother, Carmel, Michelle Butterly creates a complex and entirely believable character who appears to know the price of everything but who has completely forgotten about value – particularly the value of a meaningful relationship with her daughter. Butterly is a ball of fire – funny, arch, unsympathetic and ultimately a tragic figure who has to reassess her life and her goals. Live-wire Carmel is the life and soul but she doesn’t know where the party is.

Cuckoo is an excellent show both light-hearted and thought-provoking in parallel: Director Vicky Featherstone shows that she is a master of her craft in what could be quite a static one location play but we are always engaged – helped by Jai Morjaria’s lighting design that combines suburban homely with key moment emphasis to excellent effect. Composer Nick Powell’s music gives the show an edge that complements the ritual baring of souls.

Talking of smart phones, AI is all the rage these days. But I don’t believe any AI Chat Bot could successfully either mirror life, create depth of character or write such a plausible script as Wynne has does here with Cuckoo.

5 Star Rating

Review by Peter Yates

I do love some David Attenborough, but even he can be a bit of a miz bag now, always going on about climate change… You don’t want to think about the end of the world before you go to bed on a Sunday night.

Doreen and her two grown-up daughters sit at the table – eating fish and chips, distracted by their phones.

Upstairs, 17–year-old Megyn has locked herself in her grandmother’s bedroom and refuses to come out. And no one is entirely sure why…

Michael Wynne’s dark comedy explores the safety of home and the different ways we cope in our increasingly uncertain world.

Olivier and BAFTA Award-winning playwright, Michael Wynne returns to the Royal Court with his new play directed by Artistic Director, Vicky Featherstone.

Writer Michael Wynne
Director Vicky Featherstone
Designer Peter McKintosh
Lighting Designer Jai Morjaria
Associate Lighting Designer Tom Turner
Sound Designer and Composer Nick Powell
Assistant Director Jade Franks
Production Manager Marius Rønning
Costume Supervisor Lucy Walshaw
Stage Manager Sadie Jennings
Deputy Stage Manager Katie Stephen
Assistant Stage Manager Lottie Denby

Cast: Michelle Butterly, Emma Harrison, Sue Jenkins, Jodie McNee

Royal Court Jerwood Theatre Downstairs

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