Review: Cuckoo at Soho Theatre

Exploring what it is to be young in Ireland today, Lisa Carroll’s debut play Cuckoo comes roaring to life at Soho Theatre, leading us without preamble into the world of best friends – and social outcasts – Iona (Caitriona Ennis) and Pingu (Elise Heaven). After being publicly humiliated one too many times by their peers, the two have decided to get out of their home town of Crumlin and move to the magical city of London… although quite what they’re going to do when they get there they’re not exactly sure.

Photo credit: David Gill

There’s a big difference between making a decision and actually seeing it through, though, and it’s not long before Iona’s excitement about their trip begins to wane – particularly when she suddenly finds herself being chatted up by local guys Pockets (Colin Campbell) and Trix (Peter Newington). It’s obvious to both Pingu and Iona’s childhood friend turned tormenter Toller (Sade Malone) – not to mention the audience – that their intentions are less than honourable, but despite multiple warnings Iona allows herself to be flattered into submission, with disastrous results for all concerned.

The heart of the story is the relationship between Iona and Pingu; the events that take place in the run-up to their departure from Dublin are, you can’t help but feel, only a catalyst to something that was always going to happen at some point anyway. In an excellent cast, Caitriona Ennis and Elise Heaven give standout performances as the two friends. Iona is an eccentric chatterbox whose over the top approach to just about everything is at first enjoyable but soon becomes wearing and ultimately alienating. Pingu, meanwhile, has opted to give up speaking altogether, having grown tired of constantly needing to justify their non-binary status, and communicates instead through a range of emphatic facial expressions.

On paper this makes for a rather uneven friendship, but it’s one that seems to work. The two stand up for each other against the bullies, and seem to communicate perfectly without any need for words. All the while they only have each other, everything’s great – but when Iona gets the first hint of a better offer, we start to realise that her friendship with Pingu might not have been quite as selfless as it appeared. One of the play’s strongest points is its conclusion, which avoids the predictable route we might expect in favour of an outcome that’s less “nice”, but perhaps rather more realistic.

Photo credit: David Gill

Despite being two hours without an interval, the production never drags or fails to hold our attention; director Debbie Hannan keeps up a fast pace and building intensity throughout, and the energy of the cast never flags. The play isn’t afraid to take on some difficult themes, including toxic masculinity, the damaging influence of social media, and prejudice – driven by fear – against those who dare to be different. But it does so with plenty of laugh out loud humour, which means that the play is actually a lot of fun to watch despite some of its content.

An impressive debut from Lisa Carroll, Cuckoo shows a very clear understanding of what motivates young people to do the things they do – good and bad. While we may not have lived the exact scenario we see unfolding on stage, there are aspects of the story that will resonate with all of us; we were all young once, after all, and chances are we made a bit of a mess of it too. A witty and compelling play, Cuckoo is definitely worth a visit.

Cuckoo is at Soho Theatre until 8th December.

Can’t see the map on iPhone? Try turning your phone to landscape and that should sort it. I don’t know why but I’m working on it… 😉

Review: Voices From Home at the Old Red Lion Theatre

Following a successful first outing last year, Voices From Home was back this weekend for a second short but sweet stay at the Old Red Lion. Curated by Tim Cook of Broken Silence Theatre – themselves a Brighton-based company – the two-day showcase featured five short plays on a broad range of themes, created by an all-female line-up of emerging writers from across the South East.

The evening opened with Sungrazer by Sussex writer Clare Reddaway, directed by Peter Taylor. In Sweden, sisters Annika and Inga can’t quite believe they’re related. They hold very different views on just about everything, but particularly about Annika’s job at the local nuclear plant, which comes to threaten their future together in a number of different ways. With strong performances from Eleanor Crosswell and Emma Howarth as the two bickering sisters, this gently humorous piece explores family tensions against a backdrop of scientific curiosity and environmental concern.

The future of our world is also at stake in M** & Women by Buckinghamshire’s Sydney Stevenson. Directed by Tim Cook, the play introduces us to 1 and 2 (Melissa Parker and Eleanor Grace), who are standing guard over the last man on Earth. The rest have been wiped out by a mysterious epidemic, leaving the women in charge of a crumbling civilisation. Except women and men really aren’t that different; we all love, hate, make inappropriate jokes, run businesses, start wars… Despite the title, in reality this is a play not about men and women but about human beings – and it speaks just as clearly to us now in 2018 as in any fictional future that may lie ahead.

Flying Ant Day, written by Jo Gatford from Sussex, and directed by Elizabeth Benbow, offers a fresh perspective on the role of “women of a certain age” in society. Through the story of mum-of-two Alice, who’s played with poignant vulnerability by Jennifer Oliver, we’re invited to look again at a mother – but this time to see her, not her children. Alice has begun to feel like she’s disappearing, piece by piece; her husband barely notices her any more, and her best friend Karen (Emmie Spencer) is too busy being super-mum to her own three kids to lend more than a passing ear. This is an incredibly impactful play, and one that I’d love to see developed further.

Emma Zadow’s very funny Norfolk-based play The Cromer Special, directed by Charlie Norburn, takes place in a fish and chip shop on Christmas Day. Maggie’s working behind the counter, despite having no customers – or indeed any fish – and has been joined by her best friend Lucy, who’s been driven out of her own house by her sister’s avocado-loving boyfriend. The play doesn’t hold back in its witty dissection of the class divide that’s sprung up between the Cromer locals and the students at nearby UEA, and this – along with brilliant comic performances from Claudia Campbell and Abbi Douetil – earned it some of the biggest laughs of the evening.

After the hilarity of the previous play, the evening ended on a somewhat darker note, with Home Time by Olivia Rosenthall from Essex. Directed by Tess Agus and performed by Isobel Eadie, the monologue begins with a scene many of us will know all too well – the rush hour commute. A grim picture is about to get even worse, however, when a young woman is sexually assaulted on a packed tube train, unseen (perhaps) by her fellow commuters. It’s a horrifying scenario – not least because it’s all too easy to believe that it actually happens – and very powerfully told, with a conclusion that’s simultaneously mundane and devastating.

As well as much-needed support for regional talent, it was also refreshing to see a programme championing female writers and performers. Each of the five pieces in Volume Two of Voices From Home brought something different to the stage, resulting in another excellent evening full of variety and mixed emotions. Despite all being under fifteen minutes, each play is able to tell a complete story – although most would certainly work also as longer pieces – and each leaves us with something to go away and think about (even if it’s just the merits, or otherwise, of avocados).

For future Voices From Home events, visit brokensilencetheatre.com.

Review: The Unspoken at Barons Court Theatre

Begun all the way back in 2003, writer and director Jody Medland’s The Unspoken was chosen to be part of the Actor Awareness summer festival in July this year, after which it was immediately picked up by Barons Court Theatre for a two-week run. It’s an unconventional story, full of surprising twists and turns, and which does indeed leave a lot unspoken. It leaves the audience with considerably more questions than answers, along with a creeping sense of unease over both what we’ve seen, and what we haven’t.

It’s also likely to prove divisive among audiences, largely for its depiction of the difficult relationship between miner Jimmy (Will Teller) and his blind daughter Maggie (Hannah Tarrington). He’s raised her alone from birth following the death of her mother, and over the years has convinced her that he’s an architect, and that the two of them live in a beautiful house that’s the envy of their whole town. He does this, we’re told, out of love – but any sympathy we might have felt for his situation is lost in the opening moments of the play, when we hear him beating his daughter offstage as she begs for mercy. Nor is this an isolated incident; he repeatedly strikes her throughout the play, chains her up like a dog, and punishes her harshly just for talking through the door to regular visitor Father Alderton (Elliot Blagden).

He tells himself – and her – that he’s doing all this to protect her from a world that not only won’t help but may actively harm her, and the play’s unexpected final scene proves that he may have been right to be concerned – although, like Maggie, we never leave the house, so have no way of knowing for sure who or what is really out there. Regardless, it’s difficult to get past the fact that this is a relentlessly abusive and controlling relationship, which is built almost entirely on deceit, and which makes for very uncomfortable viewing.

This also means that the play’s central theme of classism gets a bit lost, because while we can appreciate the difficulties of Jimmy’s situation – the play is set in 1972, in the looming shadow of the impending miners’ strike – it still doesn’t seem like enough to justify his brutal methods. And though he ultimately takes steps to ensure a future for Maggie that will see her elevated in society, the way in which he does it, and in which the final scene is performed, leave us questioning whether he may not have just moved her from frying pan to fire.

Whatever your reaction to the play’s themes and content, however, there’s no denying the performances are excellent. Will Teller has arguably the toughest role as Jimmy, walking with great precision the narrow line between loving father and vicious tyrant, and there are moments when we do genuinely sympathise with his situation – if not with his reaction to it. Alongside him, Hannah Tarrington is painfully vulnerable as Maggie, submitting meekly – almost willingly – to her father’s abuse and taking scraps of comfort from the hours she spends listening to her radio. And yet despite the attempts of several men to rescue her from dangers she can’t see, she’s not quite the damsel in distress they all believe her to be – as Dr Rose later discovers to his cost. Elliot Blagden plays both Father Alderton and the doctor, and though we never see the former and only meet the latter for a few minutes, he brings an ambiguity to both roles that poses one of the play’s more intriguing questions: is seeing really believing?

There are certainly aspects of The Unspoken that feel problematic, and for that reason the play won’t be for everyone; I still haven’t quite decided how I feel about it myself. On the other hand, so much is left unexplained that it gives the audience plenty to talk about, debate and almost certainly disagree over. Sometimes it’s obvious what a writer wants us to take away from seeing their play; this is not the case here, and that alone makes it worth a visit – just make sure you allow plenty of time for post-show discussions.

The Unspoken is at Baron’s Court Theatre until 22nd September.


Can’t see the map on iPhone? Try turning your phone to landscape and that should sort it. I don’t know why but I’m working on it… 😉

Review: The British Theatre Challenge at Brockley Jack Studio Theatre

The British Theatre Challenge was founded in 2012 by Sky Blue Theatre Company to support playwrights by giving them the opportunity to see their work professionally produced, directed and performed. This year’s five finalists have been whittled down from over 200 entries, and presented to audiences at the Brockley Jack over five evenings this week. Each night, the audience is asked to rank the plays in order of preference, with the overall winner – announced tonight – taking home the Anne Bartram Playwright Award. We were asked to cast our vote based not on the acting or directing, but on the quality of the writing alone. In keeping with this instruction, my review will do the same.

Three of the plays followed a similar theme, taking a look at how technology could shape the future – and funnily enough, the future doesn’t look great in any of them… In 2045 by Scott Lummer, a family prepare for The Transformation, a global programme that aims to combine all human bodies with machines. But what seems like a great idea to reduce consumption of limited resources can’t resolve the fact that people are people, and that even with mechanical bodies they still bring with them the potential for conflict and inequality. Like all the plays, 2045 is short – less than half an hour – but even in that limited time shows strong character development and gives us plenty to think about – though not all of it is particularly encouraging.

Photo credit: Rah Petherbridge

Tagged by Jim Moss takes an equally dark view of our relationship with technology as we meet Allie, who’s been kidnapped and locked in a room where she’s forced to meet clients and ensure they have “exquisite encounters”. If she objects, the cuff on her ankle injects her with a drug to make her comply. Moss skilfully builds the tension and keeps us guessing until the final twist; when Allie’s latest client turns out to be a police officer, we learn the truth about how she got there – and it’s all the more shocking because it’s a situation any one of us could easily get ourselves into, even today.

Far less dark but still with a bit of a sinister edge, Elspeth Tilley’s Bunnies and Wolves takes an extreme view of what a public-private healthcare system could look like. Riley and Casey’s daughter has been admitted to hospital, but it turns out everything, from the ability to purchase a cup of coffee to the quality of their daughter’s treatment, depends entirely on how many points they can earn on the in-house marketing programme. Though the play rapidly spirals from vaguely feasible to utterly surreal, it nonetheless makes some shrewd points about the consumer-driven society in which we live – and brings home more powerfully than ever how lucky we are in the UK to have the NHS.

Sheila Cowley’s Teatime is set in the ruins of a library during an unnamed conflict, and focuses poignantly on the ways in which human beings adapt to traumatic circumstances. When Kim stumbles into the library looking for an exit, she meets Archie and Annabelle, who live in an entirely imaginary world where everything’s fine – although we learn, in snatched asides, that both have suffered terrible losses as a result of the war. In its current form, it’s hard to really get to know the characters and appreciate what they’re going through before the play comes to an end; I’d love to see a longer version that tells us more.

Photo credit: Rah Petherbridge

Finally, easily the most emotional play of the five is Accident of Birth by Trevor Suthers.It follows the first meeting between Margaret and Anthony since she gave him up for adoption as a baby – a meeting that takes place at Broadmoor, where he’s detained at her Majesty’s pleasure for undefined crimes. What begins as an awkward but – in the circumstances – reasonably affable reunion becomes more and more uncomfortable as Anthony tries to make sense of who he’s become by finding out more about his biological parents from an unwilling Margaret. This gripping contribution to the nature versus nurture debate doesn’t give us the answers to all his questions, but it does tell us just enough to ensure we’re completely caught up in and moved by their encounter.

Taking all the plays together, this year’s British Theatre Challenge – hosted by Sky Blue Theatre’s John Mitton – made for a really enjoyable evening of new writing. Like everyone else I cast my vote at the end of the evening, but regardless of tonight’s outcome, all five pieces absolutely deserved their place on stage and will, I hope, be seen by audiences again in the future.

For more details about the British Theatre Challenge, visit the Sky Blue Theatre website.

Review: How To Save A Life at Theatre N16

According to Cancer Research, around 1 in 135 women in the UK will be diagnosed with cervical cancer in their lifetime. Maybe that makes it sound like the odds are in our favour – but what if you’re the one?

Written and directed by Stephanie Silver, How To Save A Life is the story of Melissa (Heather Wilkins), who’s just learned she’s got cervical cancer after going to the doctor with an embarrassing and apparently minor complaint. The play follows her through her journey and explores how her diagnosis affects her relationship with those closest to her – in particular, her boyfriend Toby (John Mark Slade) and best friend Maria (Katerina Robinson).

The first surprise is how funny the play is; Melissa is an engaging central character who’s not afraid to (over)share intimate details about her life, and who, despite her immediate fears that as a cancer patient she’ll never smile again, still manages to find silver linings to her condition. All the Spice Girls dance routines, gap year plans and glitter cannons in the world, though, can’t quite distract us – or Melissa – from the sobering reality of what’s happening to her, as with each new doctor’s appointment the prognosis gets a little worse. Heather Wilkins’ performance captures really well the growing sense of panic that constantly intrudes, despite Melissa’s best attempts to smother it, and we feel each new blow right along with her.

How To Save A Life at Theatre N16

Some of the play’s most poignant scenes are shared moments with Toby and Maria, who never leave her side (literally; both John Mark Slade and Katerina Robinson remain on stage throughout, filling in all the other roles and ensuring the right prop is always to hand). Though it’s initially heartwarming to see their unwavering support, as the play goes on it begins to make things worse, because Melissa’s all too aware of how much she means to them and what it’ll be like for them to lose her. Should the play be developed into a full-length piece – and let’s hope it is – it would be great to see this complex relationships angle explored in more depth.

Perhaps inevitably, given that it was written by a medical professional, the play’s immediate impact is also to educate its audience about the symptoms to look out for, and the importance of cervical cancer screening. Far from lecturing, however, it does this very naturally through Melissa, as she not only shares what initially led her to consult the doctor but also reflects on the other earlier signs she brushed off as “normal”. As a woman in the audience, it’s almost impossible not to be affected or go away with a heightened awareness of the risks.

It’s still early days for How To Save A Life, which is performed at Theatre N16 this week as part of the Catapult new writing festival – but already there’s a huge amount of potential in this short but impactful piece. If nothing else, it should encourage more people to go for screening, but it’s also a deeply poignant look at one young woman’s devastating personal journey through a cancer diagnosis and beyond. I hope we’ll see more of it in the future.

Catch the final two performances of How To Save A Life at Theatre N16 on 28th and 29th September, 9.30pm.