For a play that starts with four women staring at their phones with only the odd notification and chuckle to break the silence, Cuckoo has a lot to say. What might at first glance appear to be a so-far-so-familiar, chucklesome northern tale of domestic life threatens to become a much more considered rumination on the everyday terrors of 21st Century life.
Nan Doreen has two daughters and a granddaughter, all of whom still depend on her in various ways and to various extents. The youngest, Megyn )Emma Harrison), is perhaps the apple of everyone’s eye. There’s just one problem. Following a row with her stressed and run-ragged Mum, Megyn goes full-on goblin mode: living in her grandmother’s bed; refusing to return home with her Mum; subsisting on Walkers roast chicken crisps and smartphone oblivion; communicating with her Nan by means of WhatsApp – a very 2023 silent protest.
Megyn’s Mum Carmel (Michele Butterly) has problems of her own, juggling a child withdrawing from life, a zero-hours job that doesn’t pay the bills at Boots and a nemesis at a rival retailer (“that witch from Superdrug”). She too suffers from anxiety and dread – so much so that she’s sometimes driven to swallowing anti-histamine and putting the chair up against the door.
As her daughter’s silent protest continues – the only communication between the two a sequence of increasingly spiteful barbs from Megyn to her Mum essayed publicly via social media – Carmel’s despair only grows at swirling crises in her life she seems unable to tackle. Despite her best efforts, the bossy and woke Aunt Sarah (Jodie McNee) can’t help and is increasingly distracted by her own online romance.
That might all sound like a recipe for a very testing night at the theatre, but writer Michael Wynne and Vicky Featherstone bring plenty of lightness and relatable angst to the very literal table around which the four sit, shout and scran. Wynne has a great eye for mining the everyday minutiae of family strife for laughs and the cast are more than up to it.
Sue Jenkins’ scouse Ma – with three friends called Pat and an online side-hustle – is the most intriguing of the characters here.
Scouse (grand)Ma Doreen – with three friends called Pat and an online side-hustle – is the most intriguing of the characters here, played beautifully by Sue Jenkins. Wynne’s dialogue in her mouth is a joy, an older lady we all recognise: always has a pot of tea on the go, loves a Sunday night in front of the telly and only wanted a Pensioner’s portion from the chippie.
We might think that we all know Doreen – a portrait of matriarchal tenderness and baby-boomer stoicism familiar from Brookie, The Royle Family and a dozen other northern comedy dramas – but as she reveals more about herself we realise that her life is more complex and rich. She has another fella on the go, much to the chagrin of her daughters, who are in for a shock when Doreen reveals there was more the late father – a man with foibles who ‘wouldn’t allow coleslaw in the house’ – than they ever realised.
Cuckoo seems less interested in fleshing out what is behind Megyn’s very own bed-in. There are implications that the climate crisis, online bullying and what feels like a world teetering out of control all build to create an existential crisis. The set, protected by a moat, seems to suggest the characters’ isolation but Wynne doesn’t show his working out and the play simply arrives at a climax that is unsettling but feels unearned.
Nevertheless many will feel there’s something woozily familiar about the unspoken terror of existence at a time of seemingly unparalleled threat; of alienation despite connectedness and fear amid domesticity. The characters fail to elucidate this spectral threat, but maybe we all do.
Until 23 September