Cuckoo, Royal Court, 2023
Photo: Manuel Harlan
  • Theatre, Drama
  • Recommended



3 out of 5 stars

Cryptic, compelling kitchen sink drama from Michael Wynne

Andrzej Lukowski

Time Out says

In the opening minutes of ‘Cuckoo’, three women from the same family – grandmother Doreen, her daughter Carmel, and her daughter, Megyn – sit slumped on their phones in the front room of Doreen’s small Birkenhead home, while waiting for Doreen’s other daughter Sarah to turn up with chips.

Are they being uncommunicative? Or are they in fact communicating at length? There’s not much speaking, but there’s a lot of messaging: to unseen friends, but also to each other, the women occasionally grunting in pleased acknowledgment when one sends another an amusing video.

It’s a drily funny opening, and veteran playwright Michael Wynne’s new drama briefly looks like it might be a slightly basic satire about how mobile phones have messed up our lives.

In fact ‘Cuckoo’ is creepier and stranger than that. In essence, it’s an old-school Royal Court kitchen sink drama that’s not been so much updated as warped and distorted for the age of technology. 

It feels familiar in form, harking back to the working-class dramas of the Court’s past. But the intrusion of tech feels constantly jarring, from the ripple of alerts that beep out the women’s phones when a terrorist incident occurs in Germany, to Michelle Butterly’s jaded Carmel being put on a zero hours and having her hours texted to her the day before, to Sue Jenkins’s upbeat Doreen explaining how liberating she finds eBay selling after her late husband wouldn’t let her have a job.

The main plot, however, revolves around Emma Harrison’s troubled Megyn. Anxious about the state of the world and depressed with at least a small d, at the end of the first act she goes upstairs to hide in Doreen’s room…  and simply doesn’t come out, retreating into bed and Instagram for weeks, posting old photos of her and her mum with inspirational captions that have almost no bearing on her actual relationship with Butterly’s cantankerous Carmel.

After the droll opening scene, Wynne’s play maintains a poker face throughout, and outgoing Court boss Featherstone seems to enjoy the challenge of directing ‘Cuckoo’ straight, the only arch flourish being an unexpected torrent of rain that erupts from Peter McKintosh’s naturalist set. Wynne raises a lot of serious social points over the course of the play’s two hours, which slip down easily thanks to superlative performances and relaxed, witty, authentic dialogue that never feels too on the nose.

But the question of what the hell Megyn is doing in Doreen‘s room serves to unbalance the play’s sense of realism – the mind wanders to the idea that something truly bizarre is happening up there. The title is clever: clearly it refers to Megyn as a cuckoo in the nest; it’s also a reference to whatever mental health problems she’s suffering from; and it at least alludes to the parasitic relationship between machines and humans in a technologised society.

Wynne’s commitment to ambiguity is what makes this play: he never judges, and he’s deliberately vague about what is going on upstairs. It’s a naturalistic slice-of-life drama that remains cryptic. 

But in the end, the ambiguity also breaks it. While it’s totally fair that Wynne doesn’t opt for a sudden late shift into melodrama, I was left fairly frustrated by the wilfully understated, largely silent ending, which hints at various resolutions but never fully embraces any of them. The kitchen sink format begs an explosive climax and without it, ‘Cuckoo’ feels robbed of something – it’s a distant rumble of thunder, a storm that never breaks.


£12-£49. Runs 2hr 5min
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