Josephine Balfour Oatts talks to the team behind Cuckoo, Writer, Lisa Carroll and Director Debbie Hannan about gender, ‘mythic London’ and just wanting people to laugh at your jokes.

Lisa Carroll leads the way as our party vacate the packed Theatre Deli in Finsbury Avenue. We climb a winding staircase, the pallid concrete matching that of the high-rise office blocks rubbing shoulders with this artistic hub. Director Debbie Hannan closes the door on a small sea of creatives, and we step across the floor of their rehearsal space. Once a conference room, the glass walls carry an opaque blush. Now, the place is littered with the debris of various cast and crew members, their countless cups of coffee sitting half-full or empty, depending on the way you look at it.

Carroll’s black and gold spangled jumper twinkles knowingly, the perfect outer layer for such an effervescent personality. Her most recent play Cuckoo is set to storm the Soho Theatre – a production inspired by her own experiences of moving between England and Ireland. Having spent the majority of her young life in London before attending university in Dublin, observing the latter capital brought with it a realisation of the battle being waged with the concept of identity – particularly amongst the adolescent population. “I find the performance of gender really interesting”, Carroll says, nodding. It was this concern that led her to create the character of Pingu, who identifies as non-binary.

Cuckoo is a tale of group hierarchy and of flying the nest, its narrative reflecting on the hardships of both. During high school, Pingu and their best friend Iona are subject to endless bullying. They are yin and yang: one, a quiet teen in a tailcoat. The other, verbose – with a wild imagination. The cost of not belonging is extortionate, and as a result, the pair make plans to emigrate to London. However, this attracts attention from the wrong crowd, and as such, has tragic consequences. In order to unpack her curiosities sufficiently, Carroll decided to build her characters from the ground up – Iona being the only figure created with an actor in mind.

“I think London exists as a myth for those who live outside of (it)”, says Hannan, her coral lipstick wrapping itself around a Glaswegian accent. For Iona and Pingu, “London is a place where you can be whatever you want and where you can have access to anything”. There are strong flavours of Sally Rooney within Carroll’s narrative, in particular that of her most recent novel Normal People. This painting of two bodies and two minds that despite everything, find themselves unable to fit into their surroundings. At the same time, both protagonists are drawn together helplessly, with both using the other as a unit of measurement with which to calculate their relationship with the world.

Director, Debbie Hannan

Hannan and designer Basia Binkowska explored this negotiation of identity and status further through aesthetic elements present within the production. Unusually for the Soho Upstairs, they have chosen traverse staging as a means of immersing their audience further into the action. There are also many shifts in location, with a keen juxtaposition of fantasy and reality. This is met with a bold use of colour, as well as detailed symbols of the teenage experience. “Small things, likes stickers on a wardrobe, or how (the characters) store (their) makeup”, says Hannan, mid-giggle. For her, it has been key to imagine a space in which self-care and self-destruction can exist symbiotically. “These characters are not narrow souls, so I wanted a place where they could explode”.Carroll has earned recognition for her ability as a comic writer, and it shows. If our group were not sitting on chairs, then we would be rolling on the floor with laughter. Chuckles worm their way between her words, and humour acts as a valve to release any tension that has built onstage. This blending of comedy and tragedy has also been a large part of the casting process for Cuckoo. “It’s the most extreme part of rehearsal”, Hannan declares, with each artist bringing something of their own experience to the performance. Interestingly, the character of Pingu (who will be played by Elise Heaven) is silent throughout – a challenge for playwright and actor alike. Their silence is a choice, so that they don’t have to justify themselves, or “have their selfhood up for debate”, Carroll adds.

It has been a five-year journey in getting Cuckoo from page to stage, and it was important to both Carroll and Hannan that they chose actors who reflected the world of the play, as well as that of their audiences. It was in casting that Carroll really felt this production beginning to grow legs, especially through observing the struggle of non-binary and transgender performers. Claiming one’s identity “has become a fraught concept”, she says, shaking her head, “this play examines, celebrates and skewers how we build the notion of the self”. Above all, she hopes to have created a piece that will stay with those who come to watch it, one that offers a different perspective on Ireland, as well as sex and gender. “I want people to be moved, troubled and enlightened”, she says through a broad smile, “and (for them) to laugh at my jokes!”.

Read our review of Cuckoo.

Cuckoo is playing at the Soho Theatre until Dec 8. For more information and tickets, see the website.