The Early Bird

Leo Butler
Natural Shocks in association with Neil McPherson for the Finborough Theatre
Finborough Theatre
(2010)

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For almost exactly an hour in Leo Butler's taut drama, actors Catherine Cusack and Alex Palmer are trapped in a Takis-designed Perspex cube surrounded by members of the audience, who are of necessity voyeurs peering into their characters' troubled lives.

The couple that they play, Debbie and Jack, are mentally confined together in a similar way, following the disappearance of their pre-teen daughter, Kimberley.

Butler has rarely been a man to go for light comedy and his latest work is no exception. This playwright's chosen method is to put the microscope on people in times of trouble and increase the amplification until the pain is almost too much to take.

In The Early Bird, we are in the present day, observing increasingly worried parents awaiting the return of their daughter. We also track back to various stages of their lives from days of pure loving happiness to those of great frustration.

Debbie suffered terrible postnatal depression, while Jack's patience was often ready to snap. This must have made life difficult for their growing daughter and amongst the many possibilities running through their minds and ours, is the chance that little Kimberley has run away from warring parents rather than been beaten by school friends, kidnapped by the Marx Brothers (don't ask) or knocked down by the school bus.

Director Donnacadh O'Briain, whose previously Dublin-based company Natural Shocks Ltd is making a conscious foray into London, has been blessed with two superb actors on top form. In particular, Catherine Cusack bares her soul as Debbie, the mother who teeters on the edge of mental instability.

Alex Palmer playing Jack does not have things easy either, as he tries to run a successful business, while pleasing both his young daughter and fickle wife.

Leo Butler believes that the way to explore complex issues like these is through repetition and minor variation and they certainly have an impact. He somewhat overdoes the repeated flashbacks but keeps the audience uncertain to the very last as to Kimberley's fate.

The Early Bird is very challenging, whether or not you have a young child of her own. Those that do might well find themselves feeling both chastened and protective after what could be a very uncomfortable hour.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher