The latest play by Olivier and BAFTA Award-winning playwright Michael Wynne is Cuckoo, now playing at the Royal Court Theatre in London.
His dark comedy about three generations of a matriarchal Birkenhead family stars Michelle Butterly, Emma Harrison, Sue Jenkins and Jodie McNee, and is directed by the Royal Court’s artistic director Vicky Featherstone.
Stage and screen writer Michael Wynne was a politics student at London University when he saw a poster advertising writing workshops at the Royal Court Theatre.
That led to him writing his first play – The Knocky, a family saga set on a Birkenhead council estate – which was staged at the Sloane Square theatre and went on to win the Meyer-Whitworth Award for Best New Play.
It was also the start of a long and fruitful working relationship between the writer and theatre which has included The People Are Friendly, verbatim NHS drama Who Cares, and The Priory, which won the Olivier Award for Best New Comedy.
Three decades after The Knocky, he is returning to the Royal Court, and to Birkenhead, with his latest play Cuckoo.
In this interview, Michael talks about comedy, class, collaborations – and what is making us all a little cuckoo!
Cuckoo is playing at the Royal Court Theatre until 19 August 2023.
Interview: Michael Wynne
Where did the inspiration for Cuckoo come from?
It originally started with being interested in things you’re allowed to say and what you’re allowed to talk about, about having opinions and people disagreeing with each other.
I also wanted to write something set in Birkenhead again, because it’s a world I know so well, and I just keep coming back to and feel really inspired by.
It’s about a family of women, and I do write for women a lot and really love that.
But initially I didn’t intend to write a female-only play. The characters just started speaking to me, and the path the plot took, the argument with Megyn and her then going upstairs, just happened – it wasn’t my intention. But I followed it, and it ended up becoming central to the whole piece.
Can you explain a bit more about the ideas you explore in the play, and also the title Cuckoo?
We’re living in a time which can feel quite strange and uncertain, with the pandemic, and Brexit, and weird weather.
The characters are working class people who don’t have massive security. And when tenets of society, like education and health, perhaps aren’t working in the way they did before, things become even more uncertain. Especially with mental health and how people don’t quite know how to deal with those issues.
There’s also this idea about the way we use technology, and especially phones, how these mini computers in our hand have taken over our lives. Maybe some things are crazier than they were. Or maybe it’s the fact we get newsflashes in the middle of a conversation about something we wouldn’t have known about in the past.
So, it’s about all that. But it’s also the idea of a cuckoo in the nest, and there are two in the play – the phone is one, and Megyn is another.
But I should say, a huge caveat is that it is a comedy! It’s the absurdity of how we live, and ultimately, it’s three generations of a family just trying to get on.
Are you addicted to your phone as the characters are in the play?
Well, I think I’m not. But then it’s quite hard not to be – they design them to become addictive.
We sit down on a train or a bus or the Tube and we just pick up our phone. We also have everything on them as well, our whole lives. They do everything; we’re so reliant on them.
You can see other people on their phones and think ‘look at them’, but I think we’re all just as bad.
There’s a family dynamic that seems to run through a lot of your work. How central is that to your creative practice?
My own family is huge for me, it’s such an inspiration even when I’m not aware of it. But I think we’re all part of families in very different ways and it’s a thing we all recognise.
It’s great for having characters who care about each other, and who are invested in each other.
You mentioned you wanted to write about Birkenhead again. Is that sense of place important to you and why?
I write other things set in different places, but I do keep returning to Birkenhead and Merseyside. It still feels like my home. I’m there a lot and I go up there to write.
And I feel that these characters are just alive. You know, just being out in Liverpool or Birkenhead, that everyone has got a story. And a character. And that’s what is so joyous.
Why is it important to you to create working-class characters and stories?
I feel that we just don’t see most of the population on stage. And I think that was always a bit of the case.
But thinking about the angry young men and kitchen sink dramas, and then people like Willy Russell and Alan Bleasdale and Jim Cartwright and even Shelagh Delaney, all these wonderful writers, I feel that I don’t know who the writers are at the moment.
I worry about not seeing many working-class plays, or even really any working-class actors. What’s the world a young writer or actor is going to be inspired by?
You have said before now that there is usually a little bit of you in the characters you write. Is that true of Cuckoo and if so, who do you particularly identify with?
There’s a bit of me in all of them. Some people who know me might go ‘oh God, I see Carmel’. But then I think there’s a bit of me in Sarah – being a bit bossy and controlling, trying to make things better but often failing. And there’s probably quite a lot of my mum in Doreen, and also a bit of me. There’s also a bit of me in Megyn, thinking I’m not addicted to my phone. And just getting more anxious about things, which happened during the pandemic, and finding life a bit tougher.
This is your eighth collaboration with the Royal Court since you wrote your first play, The Knocky, three decades ago. What is it that keeps drawing you back?
They look after the writer. During the pandemic the theatre was closed but they did this thing called the Living Newspaper where they invited writers to respond to what was going on. At that point I was a bit all over the place and I thought ‘oh my God, am I ever going to write anything again?’
I wrote a short piece (I’m Not Here) about a lad from Birkenhead who finds himself outside the Royal Court, and then finds his way in and feels like he doesn’t quite fit in – which is how I feel sometimes about theatre industry, even now. But on the other hand, I don’t.
I love the Royal Court because it’s a writing theatre, and they’re very supportive and nurturing. After doing Living Newspaper, I was working on Cuckoo, and I said ‘oh well maybe you want to look at this’. They responded very positively and loved it.
Through the rehearsal process, I’d come in in the morning and maybe go ‘oh, I’m going to change that line there and I’m going to add…’ and they just let me do it!
What do you hope audiences will take away from Cuckoo?
Life is complex, and for the different characters there are different struggles they’re going through. But it’s hard to know what I want people to ultimately take away. Maybe if we all binned our phone, we might be a bit happier? Although I know that’s not going to happen.
With a lot of my plays, it’s quite funny at the beginning but then it does get quite dark later. Hopefully we’ve got you by then and you want to stay!
There’s a lot of theatre out there at the moment which can feel like you’re taking medicine or doing your homework. I think we need a bit of a laugh and also, yes, to have the world reflected back at us. But to let go a bit and just have a good night out.