The Early Bird
Finborough Theatre February 2010
Leo Butler's hour-long two-hander discovers a couple on the day their little girl disappeared on the way to school.
Paralysed by the tragedy - they do not seem to have called the police or even gone looking for her - they compulsively relive the events of the morning, the night before, and further back into the past.
In the process we sense that the child, who may have been brain-damaged, was as much a burden as a joy to her parents, the father retreating into cold control of the parts of his life he could keep unmessy, the mother sinking into depression and day-long TV watching.
The fact that their only happy memories are of before the girl was born just adds to their vague sense of guilt, as do the hints that her absence may be in some ways a relief.
And, of course, in this post-Edward Albee world, we must occasionally wonder if the never-seen but much-described child never actually existed, but was just a projection of their unhappiness.
Ambiguity is a difficult mode to sustain without crossing the line into actual obscurity, and it probably would not have hurt the emotional effectiveness of Butler's play if we had been given just a few solid facts to hang on to.
As it is, actors Catherine Cusack and Alex Palmer must work very hard to generate some fleeting sense of continuity and reality in their characters, and they are more successful in isolated moments than over any span of time.
Director Donnacadh O'Briain and designer takis have placed the couple within a transparent plastic box, with the audience on four sides, increasing the sense both of uneasy voyeurism and of the characters' being trapped by self-created psychological boundaries.
Effective sound design by Philip Stewart turns the necessity of amplifying their voices into a virtue by manipulating them to sound like the child in some of the flashbacks, adding to the eerie atmosphere as well as the suggestion that she exists only within them.
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The Early Bird - Finborough Theatre 2010