7 July 2023
CUCKOO (Royal Court Theatre) Review
Written by Michael Wynne, this was billed as a dark comedy about coping with uncertain world. Allow me to offer an alternative take: a muddled and formulaic snooze about daughters wanting to get their own way with their mothers. Apparently this is the 8th play of Wynne’s staged at the Royal Court Theatre (several of them having been award recipients). I have never seen anything Wynne has written for the theatre or film/telly, and, sadly, this first encounter did not impress. Perhaps it’s easy to get mediocre writing staged when you’re a known entity…
The crux of the story goes like this (don’t worry, this isn’t giving away anything past the first few minutes): there’s elderly Doreen, her two grown daughters Carmel and Sarah, and Carmel’s teenage (or perhaps young adult) daughter Megyn. The four women are having dinner “together”, but each is actually in her old little world staring at her phone. Sarah suggests some “phone down” time, discussion turns to environment, Megyn runs upstairs and locks herself in grandma’s bedroom.
Ok, so now you’re thinking, “this could be interesting; what’s the cause of this, and what would it take to resolve it…”, but the writing runs out of steam about 20 minutes into this 2-hour play. There are a couple of sub-plots here, but each is incredibly formulaic… When it turns out that Doreen has a love interest, her daughters flip out. When Sarah announces that she’s going out with a lovely dentist, we know exactly how that’s going to end. Carmel, though clearly a loving mother, is tough on Megyn, and we know exactly how that’s going to come to a head in the age of gentle snowflakes.
SPOILER ALERT: Megyn spends one month upstairs whilst the elderly grandma camps out on the sofa. Carmel drives herself batty trying to work out what’s going on whilst Megyn posts some unkind things on her social media. Eventually Megyn comes downstairs (a month later!) and announces that she’ll go home if Carmel is nicer to her. The end.
I spent some time chatting to Michelle Butterly (who plays Carmel) after the show. Frankly, her acting was the reason I didn’t leave in the intermission, but we’ll loop back to this in a minute. She said, among other things, that one of the messages of the play is that young people these days have a hard time coping with things, and social media can make it both better and worse. Sure, that’s a valid point, no argument there. But the play doesn’t actually make from where I’m looking at it. What the play seems to say is that you can hold your parent to an ultimatum with some clever use of social media. Sometimes you even win. There is nothing wrong with Megyn… Carmel is tough, and it seems Megyn wants an easier life. Lock yourselves in your room, boys and girls, and maybe your parents will cave. Besides, it rather undermines the play’s credibility that a grandma is sleeping on the sofa for a month, and no one says boo.
The only thing that saves the production somewhat is the acting. Butterly is superb: her Carmel is like every mum who’s just about had it with her unruly and moody teenager. It feels like she’s about to snap, but she manages to hold it together. I’d love to see more of her on stage. Sue Jenkins as Doreen is just lovely. She is cheeky and a bit of a dark horse, but it’s all about how she says things, not what she says. Jodie McNee as Sarah is very entertaining as she flip-flops between enthusiasm at the start of the play and “let is all burn” take on this at the end, though I did struggle to understand her during the dinner scene when she talks whilst eating. Emma Harrison is quite funny (whether intentionally or not I’m not sure) at the end of the play.
Vicky Featherstone’s direction seems to rely a fair bit on cheap laughs. The show starts with 3 women sitting at the table looking at their phones. Five seconds in, and half the audience is laughing themselves silly whilst the other half is sitting there with that “huh?” look. How is that funny??? There is a scene where Doreen is getting ready to go out. She seems to have come out of the shower and is now tweezing her chin. Same thing: half the audience is laughing, half the audience is thinking, “well, given her age, that’s par for course”. I guess there isn’t much a director can do when the writing is boring and hold no surprises.
I guess I am baffled by a play where nothing happens, the message is mixed to put it generously, and one has to wonder why we needed this play to begin with.
Cheapskate enjoyment value: -£10.