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The Birds

by on 25 June 2022

Pecking Order

The Birds

by Conor MacPherson, based on the novel by Daphne du Maurier

St Michaels Players at the St Michael’s Centre, Chiswick until 25th June, then at The Annexe Theatre, Edinburgh Fringe until 27th August  

Review by David Stephens

A chilling version of Daphne du Maurier’s original 1952 short-story, this stage adaption of The Birds, written by Conor McPherson (The Girl from the North Country, The Weir) and staged by the St Michael’s Players in Chiswick is a self-styled ‘tense-psychodrama’, delivering intrigue and suspense in abundance and managing to succeed where many others fail: to produce a thriller that is worthy of the genre.

The mood is set from the start.  As the play begins, the auditorium is plunged into darkness, broken only by a faint, ethereal, blue stage glow, the accompanying eerie music punctured only by the unsettling sound of beaks, seemingly tapping on the roof and walls of the theatre, climaxing in a cacophony of bird screeches, human screams and the sound of breaking glass.  As the play begins, therefore, the audience, hearts already pounding with adrenaline, and, with eyes struggling to adjust to this dim light, half expecting to see this flock of frenzied birds, are relieved to find themselves inside the relative safety of a room in a ramshackle house, complete with makeshift bed, a table with portable cooking equipment and another table stood in front of a heavily barricaded window.  Such is the strength of this immersive beginning, that the audience almost feel as though they themselves have narrowly escaped the angry flock by diving into this abandoned property, adding to the feeling that we are also part of the claustrophobic experience that is to follow.

This simple set, together with its carefully considered properties, including emergency rations and portable cooking equipment, gives the play a post-apocalyptic feel, and, as we soon discover from the pre-recorded diary entry which opens the dialogue, this house is now the make-shift refuge of the diary’s owner, Diane (Arabella Harcourt-Cooze) and Nat (Neil Dickins), two strangers whose fates have collided in their attempt to escape from these flocks of blood-thirsty birds – birds who have inexplicably turned against humanity, stopping at nothing to fuel their insatiable appetites for human flesh….  and eyes!!!

On their quest for survival, the pair are soon joined by Julia (Georgina Parren), who, we learn, has been forced to flee from a near-by commune of other survivors, mainly due to the unwanted advances of some of the men there.  In a particularly moving moment, brilliantly acted by both Parren and Harcourt-Cooze, we also learn that she blames herself for the violent death of a friend, running from a frenzied bird attack but, in doing so, leaving her companion to suffer this terrible fate alone.

Although we regularly hear their random attacks and repeated attempts to get to the three refugees, the play is less about ‘the birds’ and more about the relationship between the main characters, examining the fragility of the human condition and the varied responses of each character to their own ‘fight or flight’ instincts.

Having grown close to Nat, Diane is clearly jealous of the romantic bond that she believes to be forming between the other two, and, when she discovers that Julia has fallen pregnant, ostensibly by Nat, Diane confronts her and, in doing so, awakens a side of Julia which she has long-suspected to be there.  This growing tension is heightened by the surprise arrival of Tierney (David Burles), whom, we discover, lives in a cottage on the other side of the lake and who has been watching their movements very closely.  Lonely and in need of female company, he makes a lewd and unwelcome proposition to Diane, who has been left alone for the day while the others are out foraging.  Offering her essential supplies and a safe place to live in return for providing him with ‘adult company’, he frightens Diane and is angered when she shuns his advances.  Soon realising that these supplies are identical to those that Julia ‘found’ while searching for supplies some days prior to his visit, Diane becomes suspicious, challenging Julia’s motives and questioning the claim that Nat is the father of her un-born child.

The play is absolutely gripping from start to finish and superbly well acted by the small ensemble cast.   As Tierney, Burles is able to bring some wonderfully comedic moments to an otherwise dark play.  His portrayal of the ‘watcher in the woods’ is both sinister and humerous and was a treat to behold.  In her role of Julia, Parren brilliantly displays her acting talents in creating a character in whom there is both suspicion and empathy but also an underlying sadness and tragedy.  As Nat, Dickins gives an excellent portrayal of a man who is caring and understanding but also slightly unsettled and unbalanced, constantly forcing the audience to question his motives and to wonder whether his past history of mental illness will re-emerge and to what effect.  Finally, as Diane, Harcourt-Cooze, is able to wonderfully showcase her acting talents.  Diane, through her insightful diary entries, provides an important prologue to the play and, as the matriarch of the group, adopting the role of cleaner, cook and carer, is the glue that holds the group together, whilst always maintaining a healthy suspicion of the others.   Harcourt-Cooze is able to manage the complex emotional range of this character with great aplomb and range of her acting ability was evident throughout.

There are many who scoff at the quality of ‘church hall’ theatre but, having seen many so-called professional ‘thrillers’ over the years, and having departed feeling anything but thrilled, huge congratulations must go to the St Michael’s Players for a production truly worthy of the genre.  This was my first visit to St Michael’s but, on the strength of this, will certainly be keeping an eye out for their future productions.

David Stephens, June 2022

Photography courtesy of SMP

From → Drama

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