Review: Suhayla El-Bushra’s Cuckoo at the Unicorn Theatre

Eden Howard (Jenny) Kate Lassman-Long (Nadine). Photo Manuel Harlan

Eden Howard (Jenny) Kate Lassman-Long (Nadine). Photo Manuel Harlan

Suhayla El-Bushra’s Pigeons was one of the more interesting offerings of the weekpy rep season at the Royal Court theatre last summer. A playwright with an honest yet playful voice, she taps into the energy of teenage life knocking against an adult world that has lost its way.

Her play Cuckoo, currently playing at the Unicorn theatre, shows many of the same virtues (and establishes an avian theme, as a friend pointed out). The world of Nadine and Jenny, two fifteen year olds with an unlikely friendship, explodes with energy, pathos, desires, disappointment and unspoken needs. The teenage girls struggle to understand themselves but their inner life is lucid and sparkling with possibilities. By contrast, the adults are either absent (Nadine’s mother never shows up) or absent in spirit (Jenny’s mum is confused and confusing. Her liberal ideas reach as far as Africa but don’t open her eyes to her own world). El-Bushra plays with preconceptions: Jenny’s mum dresses like a hippy the time forgot and the girls talk explicitly about sex (even when they have no experience themselves). In some ways, it’s a neverworld: the girls live in anticipation of things to come, the adults reminisce on glories that never happened.

Nathan Curry directs with the scrappiness of teenage life. The production has something rough around the edges but this is not a critiscism. What lacks in polish makes up in energy and drive. The set, designed by Georgia Lowe, replicates the transformative quality of young lives: a kitchen, a bedroom, a backyard and a rooftop effortlessly blend into each other.

Eden Howard’s Jenny projects a stormy understatement that convinces both on her character’s awkwardness and untapped fire. Kate Lassman-Long as Nadine beautifully balances the explosive openness of the character and Sarah Malin as Erica stays at the right side of convention, portraying someone too enamoured with youth to be able to grow up.

At 75 minutes, the play is a short burst of life, full of promise of things to come.

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