'The Cord' review – this intimate drama is admirably honest about the trials of new parenthood

Read our review of Bijan Sheibani's new play The Cord, now in performances at the Bush Theatre to 25 May.

Julia Rank
Julia Rank

The Cord is the second play by writer/director Bijan Sheibani (most recently a writer on Netflix’s One Day) and takes the form of a tightly wound slice-of-life three-hander documenting the postpartum period from a new father’s perspective.

Anya (Eileen O’Higgins) and Ash (Irfan Shamji) have become parents for the first time. The birth involved stitches, followed by mastitis and a longer-than-expected period in hospital; they’re all exhausted but mother and baby Louis are OK and home safely.

Anya’s mother Helen (by default the alpha granny as the mother’s mother) has been helping out, and now it’s Ash’s mum Jane’s (a sharply observed performance by Lucy Black) turn to meet her grandson and celebrate the miracle of new life with her son. It’s indicated that Jane had some kind of breakdown linked to post-natal depression following Ash’s birth, but what happened exactly all those decades ago is never explicitly defined.

Staged by Sheibani in the round, the play takes place on a grey carpeted platform (designed by Samal Blak); the actors are dressed in comfy-casual clothing with bare feet. It represents home, a place of safety that can also feel like a boxing ring with nowhere to hide when faced with confrontation. No one is necessarily in the “right” or the “wrong”, but in a confined environment it’s easy to say and do things one will later regret.

Shamji’s Ash is introduced as a laidback and gentle type, delighted with the information he’s gleaned from falling down an internet breastfeeding rabbit hole, but takes a darker turn as he struggles to bond with his son and define his role in this new trio – as the emphasis is on the bond between mother and baby at the newborn stage. Perhaps ironically, it’s O’Higgins’s Anya who feels dramatically sidelined and underdeveloped in the process.

Movement director Aline David and lighting designer Oliver Fenwick capture the haziness of existing from day to day on broken sleep. Jane writhes in pain during scene transitions but whether the back pain she experiences is psychological or a sign of serious illness remains ambiguous.

The soundscape from onstage cellist/composer Colin Alexander emphasises the pressure-cooker environment. The play’s theatrical highlight is the sequence evoking the claustrophobia of a fraught car journey following a visit to Ash’s parents in which he starts to lose control when driving, and the sense of terror is heightened by the cello’s frantic dissonance.

Many of the observations are likely to be relatable to audience members who have been through the experience of adjusting to parenthood and navigating politics between in-laws. There are elements that haven’t fully come to gestation, and other people’s relationship and childrearing problems (in real life and fiction) aren’t always fascinating.

However, the naturalistic dialogue here that feels plausibly verbatim is heightened by an intimate production of absorbing honesty which proves that Sheibani is a capable director of his own work.

The Cord is at the Bush Theatre through 25 May.

Photo credit: The Cord (Photo by Manuel Harlan)

Originally published on

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