'Cuckoo' review – this new family drama is alarming, surprising and highly entertaining

Read our four-star review of Cuckoo, by Michael Wynne, now in performances at the Royal Court to 19 August.

Matt Wolf
Matt Wolf

The Royal Court makes a welcome return to form with Cuckoo, the Olivier-winning playwright Michael Wynne’s eighth play here and a relief after a series of underperforming mainstage offerings.

Freed from having to peddle an agenda, Cuckoo can do what all good drama does – tell a story with characters who grab a playgoer’s attention. And so it is from the first scene, which finds three generations of women gathered around a dining table in the Birkenhead home of the jolly-seeming grandmother, Doreen (Sue Jenkins, a recognisable face from the world of TV soaps).

The problem is that none of these four seem very engaged with one another. Instead, a protracted opening silence is broken only by the telltale pings of their mobile phones as is the case at a time when someone can have thousands of online “friends” but no actual ones.

Doreen, her two daughters Sarah (the superb Jodie McNee) and Carmel (Michelle Butterly), and Carmel’s 17-year-old daughter Megyn (Emma Harrison, marking her professional stage debut), have a primary connection with their screens that doesn’t carry over to flesh-and-blood people.

Small wonder that Megyn soon retreats into an upstairs bedroom where she sequesters herself away for weeks on end, communicating only by text. She reappears in time for an eerie climax alive to the terrors of the world that neatly replaces one occupant of that attic hideaway with another.

Fear shadows the characters throughout in a play – co-presented with Liverpool Everyman and Playhouse, to which it will travel after London – that cunningly juxtaposes the ordinary detail of daily life with multiple reminders of a greater mayhem just beyond the shared fish-and-chips meals that offer short-lived solace.

Audiences who have thrilled to the domestic intrigue of 2:22 A Ghost Story may experience a similar dread here. All is not well despite the good cheer that Doreen, in particular, does her best to impart, and the play ends as it began – with a long sequence containing no dialogue that will surely prompt debate in the bar afterwards.

We get numerous nods towards daily life: the competition between the chemists Boots and Superdrug, to name but one, or the reassuring presence over the years of David Attenborough, the broadcaster and biologist who is now 97.

But Attenborough’s cautionary interest in climate change offers just one clue that the world at large is more disordered than you might think from the retro visual appeal of Peter McKintosh’s eye-catching set, which uses the full height and depth of the stage (and allows for a rainstorm, as well). The teenage Megyn is fixated on nothing less cosmic than the end of the planet, and the seniors in her midst all experience personal crises that cut to the quick.

It’s giving little away to report that Sarah makes a big fuss early on of two important (offstage) figures in her life, both of whom vanish dramatically from view. It’s Sarah after the interval who is left to articulate the “scary world out there” that she feels as deeply as her niece: anxiety, it seems, runs in the genes.

Megyn’s mum, Carmel, wears her sourness on her sleeve, as you would too trapped in a retail job with no guaranteed income or hope of advancement – and the promise only of further automisation on the work front to come.

But Wynne finds plenty of humour to lighten the mood, and the director Vicky Featherstone, soon to vacate her decade-long post as artistic director of the Court, keeps the play springy and surprising throughout. Cuckoo is alarming, to be sure, and highly entertaining too.

Cuckoo is at the Royal Court through 19 August. Book Cuckoo tickets on London Theatre.

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Photo credit: Cuckoo (Photo by Manuel Harlan)

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