Theatre Review


Home Reviewers







Natural Shocks Ltd present


The Early Bird


by Leo Butler


Directed by Donnacadh O’Briain


Finborough Theatre


2 - 27 February 2009







A review by Jay Richards for EXTRA! EXTRA!

A clear perspex box stands in the Finborough Theatre where the rows of seats should have been. We take our seats around it feeling uncomfortably exposed. Inside, a man and woman dressed in drab grey perform a few vignettes implying partnership until the house lights dim. Catherine Cusack as Debbie, and Alex Palmer as Jack, stare through the transparent walls, making eye contact with each of the audience in turn. To be so thoroughly engaged by the actors is decidedly unnerving. This couple’s young daughter has gone missing; to watch this production of Leo Butler’s The Early Bird is to witness an exhibition of their grief.

It’s as if the physical walls of a household and the psychological walls of a father and mother have suddenly vanished; they are goldfish, fully deserved of our sympathy but utterly beyond our help, trapped in the tragedy’s suffocating reality.

As the play unfolds to the rattle of Philip Stewart’s claustrophobic score, the line between conversation and internal dialogue dissolves and past and present become interchangeable. The devastated couple are rarely on the same page since their shared grief has manifested differently. They must serve their time in isolation from one another. In the mouths of Cusack and Palmer, Leo Butler’s script alternately buzzes like a mosquito and ravages like a rabid dog, but always presses on and down like a burrowing beast, hungry for truth. Bickering and biting like children themselves, the couple systematically dismantle their relationship, combing through in minute detail, not only the circumstances of the fateful morning of the daughter’s disappearance, but the time before, haranguing each other as the pain turns into spite and blame – how else to make sense of the inconceivable when there are no answers?

Cusak and Palmer, a real-life married couple, are, by turns, dazed, furious, jealous, proud, affectionate – the gamut of a relationship turned out onto the stage. Donnacah O’Briain seems to conduct more than he directs, drawing a tragic music out of Butler’s script. He demands extraordinary bravery of his players, two considerable acting talents, for the staging (takis) and largely fluorescent lighting design (Paul Keogan) is unforgiving to the point of being clinical. Every quiver of lip is visible, every shadow to cross the psyche is externalized by a clench of a fist or flick of an eye; the microscope is turned up twenty times revealing a towering acting duet.

It would be churlish to complain that the dialogue is sometimes repetitive. Of course, we are eavesdropping on a couple’s personal purgatory, a deadspace where the sound of a lost child’s voice reverberates in the empty-seeming house. We accept that the same arguments are revisited time and time again, with the same accusations, the same rebuffs. If The Early Bird induces a numbness, it is empathetic with the characters and therefore totally appropriate.

Hidden among the petrified remains of this desolated relationship are clues to a more familiar riddle, exactly inverse of the play’s central conceit: what happens when we have children? Will our friends still come to see us? Will we, like Debbie, become prisoners, watching day-time TV? It seems likely that Butler’s treatment of these questions will ring in the ears long after the visceral impact of this uncompromising and immediate piece has faded. 

020 7373 3842

Finborough Theatre
118 Finborough Road
London SW10 9ED

Tickets £9.90 - £15



Copyright © EXTRA! EXTRA All rights reserved





Home Reviewers