Review: Cuckoo at Liverpool Everyman ****
It was watching shows at the Liverpool Everyman which first fired a passion for theatre in the heart of a Birkenhead teenager called Michael Wynne.
Through it he discovered his own distinct storytelling voice – one that speaks through Cuckoo, his latest play which focusses on the dynamics of human interaction while also seeking to say something about how we respond to the increasingly connected (and yet isolated) world we find ourselves living in.
Like Hope Place, his 2014 production which launched the (then-new) Everyman, Cuckoo brings together a disparate collection of family members around a table where bread is broken, dreams are shared…and grievances aired.
Here, it’s three generations of a matriarchal family unit, one from which men have become absent – or, it turns out, have absented themselves.
We meet Mum Doreen (Sue Jenkins), daughters Carmel (Michelle Butterly) and Sarah (Jodie McNee) and teenage granddaughter Megyn (Emma Harrison) as they tuck into a communal chippy tea while at the same time sitting in splendid isolation welded silently to their smart phones.
It’s an instantly, nay guiltily, recognisable scene.
And the laughs of recognition (for the situation but also here, in a ‘home’ audience, for the geographical and social nuances and references) come thick and fast as the quartet yo-yo from small daytime dramas and local gossip to transitory exclamations about international disasters unfolding in real time through the bombarding pings of electronic newsflashes.
Above: Jodie McNee (Sarah), Sue Jenkins (Doreen), Emma Harrison (Megyn) and Michelle Butterly (Carmel) in Cuckoo. Also top. Photos by Manuel Harlan.
All four have their own preoccupations, but it’s a monosyllabic Megyn – who we learn both sees the world and curates her own existence through the prism of a small screen – who responds to life in the most extreme way by absenting herself from it.
If she turns out to be one cuckoo, squatting in her grandmother’s own bed, then the other in Wynne’s theatrical nest is definitely the device that acts as both a pacifier but also as a disruptor, one that can amplify both events and strange, indefinable feelings of dread in an uncertain, changing world.
Part black comedy, Cuckoo is also part bleak comedy too.
Wynne writes well for women’s voices – and he captures the rhythms and dynamics of family relationships with delightful Bennett-esque turns of phrase, along with an eye for the comedy within the minutiae of life in its most mundane moments.
Jenkins glows as the merry widow no longer willing to be constrained by a past life that was only seemingly perfect, while Michelle Butterly convinces as a cynical single mum worn down by economic uncertainty. Meanwhile McNee vibrates with bright-eyed fervency as an earnest if naïve optimist who is winged when she discovers reality is far from black and white.
But while the rest of the family are fleshed out into living, breathing, recognisable and empathetic three-dimensional characters, somewhat frustratingly Harrison’s mute Megyn remains an unreachable enigma – what is she thinking? Why did she lock herself away? What does she fear? Does she even know?
Deliberate or not – and I assume this is a deliberate choice by Wynne to serve his wider talking points - she remains an unknown and these questions remain unresolved.