Cuckoo at the Royal Court Theatre
Cuckoo, a new play by Olivier and BAFTA award recipient Michael Wynne, has opened at London’s Royal Court Theatre. The dark comedy reflects on the corrosive impact of technology on family relationships, offering a thought-provoking commentary that may leave even the most avid phone users questioning their habits.
Under the direction of Vicky Featherstone, Royal Court’s artistic director, the drama is set in Wirral and unravels around three generations of women: Doreen (Sue Jenkins), a cheerful widow, her daughters, Carmel (Michelle Butterly) and Sarah (Jodie McNee), and Carmel’s daughter Megyn (Emma Harrison, making her professional debut). The play opens in Doreen’s humble Birkenhead living room, revealing a scene too common in today’s households: family members engrossed in their phones, leading to an eerie absence of genuine communication.
Each woman is glued to her phone, trapped in a digital escape from the monotony of their lives. Doreen keeps herself busy selling personal belongings and used clothes online, Boots employee Carmel seeks solace in amusing videos, primary school teacher Sarah obsessively awaits text messages from her boyfriend, and Megyn, who just left school with no qualification, passes her days immersed in social media. The beginning of the play is humorously familiar, drawing laughs from the audience as the characters attempt conversations while secretly browsing their phones.
When a disagreement on the climate crisis escalates, Megyn isolates herself in her grandmother’s room, remaining there for most of the play and communicating with the world only through her device: a nesting cuckoo hiding from the harsh reality outside. As the story progresses, each woman faces their personal hardships. Sarah’s boyfriend Simon abruptly disappears from her life, Carmel’s working hours are severely cut, and we learn that Doreen’s late husband was controlling throughout their marriage. Megyn refuses to exit her room, fuelling speculations of possible assault, while Carmen is plagued by night terrors. The atmosphere darkens, with lights flickering, and rain falling as the public is left to wonder if Megyn is still upstairs and alive.
The women ultimately share a moment of emotional honesty, although the climactic resolution remains slightly subdued. The audience yearns for an explosive culmination that unites the women in a dramatic act, which is unfortunately missing. Nevertheless, the acting is praiseworthy – Sue Jenkins delivers a touching performance, portraying the grandmother’s earnest efforts to mend familial. Jodie McNee’s Sarah oscillates between hilarious and heartbreaking, as her character grapples with her boyfriend “ghosting” her, all while striving to save Megyn. Michelle Butterly’s Carmel is brilliantly nuanced. As a mother grappling with abandonment – left alone with bills and a mortgage – her performance transitions from an initially indifferent response to her daughter’s actions to showing the true depth of her maternal love. Emma Harrison, in the challenging role of Megyn, adeptly infuses texture into her character’s depressive teenage phase, in spite of her limited on-stage presence.
Cuckoo, despite its somewhat restrained climax, is sure to provoke contemplation, potentially evoking a sense of guilt as you reach for your phone at the end of the show.
Images: Manuel Harlan
Cuckoo is at the Royal Court Theatre from 6th July until 19th August 2023. For further information or to book visit the theatre’s website here.