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Cuckoo - Royal Court

It was bound to happen at some point. An audience at the theatre is requested to switch off their mobile phones and other electronic devices, only for it to discover, as the curtain rises, the show’s characters are themselves engaging with others – and each other – on smartphones. This seems to be, however, the main point the play wants to make, and having sufficiently made it, with Sarah (Jodie McNee) ordering the others seated around the dinner table (despite not being the matriarch of the family) to put their phones down for a few minutes, an entire evening’s ‘entertainment’ centres around people’s overreliance on mobile telephony. It is a point made with more repetition than Groundhog Day.

Megyn (Emma Harrison, making her professional debut) goes into her grandmother Doreen’s (Sue Jenkins) bedroom and doesn’t come out, refusing to explain why. Doreen herself is therefore forced to sleep on the couch, and after some weeks pass, Megyn’s mother Carmel (Michelle Butterly) decides to pull the plug on the WiFi. I would have thought Megyn would have an unlimited data plan to continue communicating with her social media followers, but the trick works, and the prodigal daughter re-emerges.

Quite how she has managed to stay alive is purely down to Doreen’s kindly nature, responding to text messages from Megyn requesting provisions, on an as-needed basis. The whole play is set in Doreen’s front room, with an adjoining kitchen visible stage left and a staircase visible stage right. Its portrayal of the world carrying on while Megyn is in self-confinement grounds the show in realism – one of Sarah’s conversations at home must be cut short because she must go to work, for instance, while Carmel finds herself back at Doreen’s unexpectedly one afternoon on account of a new zero-hours contract forced on employees at the high street retailer she works at.

It’s an unwieldy narrative, about everything and yet about – well, not quite ‘nothing’, but rather about things a family just trying to keep themselves going cannot resolve on their own. Climate change is mentioned on several occasions, with Megyn getting angry at Doreen after the latter mentions her (Doreen’s) elimination of plastic bags from her grocery shopping trips. That’s not enough to save the world. But Doreen isn’t trying to save the world…

Unlike Dear Evan Hansen, the audience doesn’t see through projections what is being texted, messaged and posted to social media. Carmel reads out some of Megyn’s online output, adding her own, invariably negative, interpretations on it. Some of the themes that come to light are, for something billed as a comedy, simply unamusing, such as Doreen’s widow previously being so demanding that these days his behaviour would be classed as coercive control. Perhaps the only thing I genuinely heartily laughed at was Doreen and Sarah, separately, indulging in online dating.

Doreen being tech savvy is quite refreshing, and increasingly expected, I suppose: the older generations, as well as everyone else, have effectively been forced into using smartphones – most car parks, for instance, are unusable without one. This was my first visit to the Royal Court since January 2016, and the snobbishness which I walked away from is still there, with a condescending piss-take of working class people on several levels, from the script (Michael Wynne) to the set (Peter McKintosh). Ironically, there’s more fun to be had watching TikTok.

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