David Campton’s Cagebirds is one of those plays that is shamefully not as well-known or acclaimed as it should be. Written in 1971, it combines absurdism with realism, detailed characters with grand ideas, comedy with darkness. It is also an incredibly rare creature in that all its eight characters are female. One doesn’t want to bleat or carp on about this issue but one also can’t shake the notion that this lack of serious male roles might have something to do with the play’s subsequent lack of note; it has become relegated to the arena of all-girls schools’ A Level performances and amateur dramatics groups. The 41st 92nd Theatre Company with New Celts Productions deliver a sensitive reading of the script and some high-quality performances, but sadly don’t manage to rise above this entry-level terrain.
Cagebirds concerns itself with the strange situation, never entirely explained, of six women (or birds, or very birdlike women, or very womanlike birds) who live in a cage, watched over by their Mistress – who holds the power and the keys. The action takes off when the Mistress decides to introduce a new member to the flock, a Wild One who quickly shatters the others’ quiet and comfortable cage-dwelling existence.
Kimberly Grey brings the most vigour and vitality to the play with her portrayal of the Wild One; she flickers convincingly between compassion and frustration as she attempts to connect with the others who, at first, seem adamant to ignore her. The other actors are all competent, showing how each woman is absorbed in her own world – a world of vanity, greed, wallowing and hypochondria, gossip, insecurity and indecision or moralising and aggression. Kizzy Lindsay deserves particular note for her consistent and nuanced portrayal of Twitting – the most nervous and flighty of the herd, yet also the one who seems to most understand the Wild One and who even offers to aid the latter’s attempt to escape.
On the whole though, the portrayal of the women – particularly in their bird-like characteristics – is just too similar. They all use the same head movements and walk with the same knee-lifting motion. A little more bravery in carving an individual character would make the production much more intriguing; the bird kingdom is a vast and varied one, and for example, the behaviour of a swan (which might have suited the vain character) is very different to that of a parrot (which might suit that of the gossip).
The actors are also really let down by a lack of exciting direction – Cameron Forbes approach appears to be to ‘let them get on with it’: there is no soundtrack except some birdsong at the beginning; the costumes are fine but don’t really help us differentiate between the characters and there are no props or set, excepting a folding wooden bench/perch which is used a handful of times. This lack of props is the most disastrous omission as it means that for much of the play, most of the women awkwardly stand in the space with nothing to do. There are also indications in the text, such as the Guzzler’s statement that “I keep a cookery book by my bedside”, to inform us that this is not just an empty cage and that the women might have created their own little nest within it, as a place of personal refuge, full of the things that they enjoy which keep them from wanting to leave the cage – helping to explain their pathological disinclination for freedom. Luckily, Campton’s beautiful characterisation and his insights into problems such as the small island mentality and Stockholm Syndrome save this production, making it just about more of a hit than a miss.
*** – 3/5 stars
Cagebirds is playing at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival until 26 August. For more information and tickets, see the Edinburgh Fringe website.