Cuckoo is the last thing you would expect to find at a children’s theatre: it’s unashamedly sweary, full of drugs and alcohol and very, very noisy. Teenage girls writhe around to Rihanna and down vodka by the bottle. It packs just about every teenage cliché into just seventy minutes in a whirlwind of angst and adolescent melodrama and it is absolutely brilliant – the Unicorn Theatre’s foray into adult content is brave but definitely pays off.
Suhayla El-Bushra’s play is also so much more than a loud, proud representation of today’s teens. Beneath its brash surface, Cuckoo is a delicate and heartbreaking discussion of what it means to belong and the lengths we will go to protect our own.
Nadine (Kate Lassman-Long) is a foulmouthed girl clad in graphic-print leggings, fed up with the world around her. Her mother, a dancer in nightclubs, cares more about getting her good-for-nothing ex back than for Nadine, leaving her to fend for herself. After breaking someone’s arm, wild-child Nadine finds herself at a new school and the play opens with her sobbing over a boy who’s called her mum ‘a slag’. The new friend on hand to offer a tissue and a shoulder to cry on is Jenny (Eden Howard), a very different kind of outsider. Jenny grew up in Africa with her open-minded mother Erica (Sarah Malin), an eccentric academic who floats around in voluminous tribal trousers exuding peace, the necessary counterbalance for the teenage girls. But all three characters are hiding a darkness within themselves that will change things irreparably by the end of the play. The real fun of Cuckoo is guessing which character is the cuckoo – who is the egg laid in the wrong nest, the one who doesn’t belong?
The unlikely pair soon become firm friends and when Jenny takes Nadine home to meet Erica an even more unlikely bond forms. Watching the relationship grow between them is touching. Erica tells Nadine all about the things her own daughter has never wanted to hear like Uganda, gender politics, and poverty. Nadine begins to flourish under such new-found love but then comes a twist that no-one could have predicted. El-Bushra certainly knows how to keep an audience in the palm of her hand and her narrative skill is captivating.
The performances are outstanding all round. Old-hand Sarah Malin gives a masterclass in emotion as Erica, the pain visible in every word and movement as she battles with her conscience and loyalties. The newcomers shine just as much: Kate Lassman-Long gives an invigorating performance as feisty Nadine, a wonderful character whose cocksure exterior hides a fragile core, while Eden Howard is appropriately delicate as her mousy other-half.
Nathan Curry’s direction and Georgia Lowe’s striking set design add the finishing touches to a gem of a production. A great evening of theatre that will leave you begging for more of the play and then even more of the precocious talent that is Kate Lassman-Long.
Cuckoo is something very special and its short run is not one to miss.