YOU can’t beat a chippy tea. So declares Sarah as three generations of a family sit vaguely round the table unwrapping huge parcels of fish and chips that none of them are going to be able to finish.
Alongside Sarah are her mum Doreen, sister Carmel and niece Megyn, but they all seem more interested in their phones than each other. This is the first of multiple layers that make up Michael Wynne’s new play, Cuckoo. At the outset it reads as a ‘kitchen sink’ working class comedy, but it doesn’t take long to discover the host of overlapping themes that inform the characters and their interactions, or at times lack of them.
Carmel has raised Megyn by herself and their relationship is strained, to put it mildly, although what actions or omissions may have caused the friction between them is left largely unspoken. Carmel is a brittle character who is running out of patience, trying to hold things together as finances become ever tighter, and Megyn? Well she might just be a sulky teenager or she might have more deep rooted emotional issues that need unearthing. Sarah is a reasonably successful primary school teacher, constantly bemused by the antics of the children and parents she has to deal with, and hopeful that she may have found the love of her life, who appears to exist only as a string of text messages on her phone.
All four have been mourning the loss of the patriarch of the family but Doreen, it seems, is bouncing back better than the rest of them. She has made the most of technology to start a little business buying and selling second-hand tat, and has found a gentleman friend too, although she knows what the reaction will be if she tells her daughters. She seems happy to be free from a former life under the coercive control of a suffocating husband.
When Megyn has a sudden shift of mood and retreats into her grandmother’s bedroom (where she remains for a substantial chunk of the play) she becomes the catalyst for an unravelling of hopes, fears and largely unfulfilled aspirations in the rest of the family.
This is dark comedy that, despite the constant undercurrent of jeopardy which is palpable throughout, delivers a constant stream of laughs, many coming in the most unlikely of places. Peter McKintosh’s set floats like an island, surrounded by a wide, glassy, reflecting moat of water, turning the cosy Birkenhead home into an isolated raft, adrift at sea and surrounded by unknown perils. The women discuss nebulous horrors beyond their control, from climate change to terrorist attacks, as though the news that constantly pings from their phones is more real than the day to day worries of their own lives. There are questions about these characters which are never answered, and even as there appears to be a glimmer of resolution as the third act draws to a close, the final scene leaves us hanging with more yet to be asked.
This is the magic of Wynne’s style of drama, in which he refuses to offer neat solutions to problems which would never have them in real life. Here is the reality of his work, along with his uncanny knack of writing gloriously sharp, natural dialogue. Director Vicky Featherstone has given the characters time to let their words, and the vast empty spaces between them, settle before the audience. The expansive silences, sometimes punctuated by subtle sound effects, have an almost Beckettian effect, tantalising us with the same sense of impending but unexplored dread that seems to haunt the family.
The quartet of players, beautifully cast in their roles, deliver pitch-perfect performances throughout. Cuckoo is a play that simultaneously delights and perplexes, and will leave you laughing about the one-liners and contemplating what really happened for a long time after it ends.
Cuckoo was produced by Liverpool Everyman & Playhouse in partnership with the Royal Court London, where it premiered in July, and it continues at the Everyman until 23rd September.
Star rating: 5 stars
Review by Nigel Smith