Towering over us and elegantly decked out by designer David Curtis-Ring in a full feather gown, Caroline Smith is the modesty-lacking part-bird, part-diva Rita. It is apparently a very real condition – avian-therianism – in which the sufferer truly identifies as a bird. In Rita’s case, she’s a Great Crested Grebe, proud of her feathers and intent on seeking our attention and approval through a series of quirky charades.
She’s aided by Grouse (Louise Lenard), who is unidentifiably some level of bird although certainly mostly human, and who says and does very little except for an unpredictable moment when she is grotesquely force-fed three slices of bread by Rita.
It’s an absurd hour of bragging, speaking in foreign languages, throwing lank pieces of salad across the stage and taking part in BirdOrff – bird world’s very own talent competition. There’s a potentially meaty murder subplot communicated through a series of news reports played through an on-stage TV, in which we see Smith as Deborah Disney – confirmation that she is in fact a real human – that is unfortunately never concluded.
What makes this show so surreal is that the many bizarre scenes are never connected, so we move through this disjointed performance without a sense of direction or clarity. The pace is slow and what action exists is heavily interspersed with drawn-out moments in which Rita preens and poses, supposedly for our benefit.
Also troubling is that much of the nuanced humour appears to have been intended for a rather specific audience and. as a result, a lot of it lands flat as the various references and bird puns soar over our heads. The attention is frequently turned on the ‘birdwatching’ audience, and interaction takes a massive swoop over the fourth wall as Smith admires our ‘feathers’ in turn before helping herself to what she declared a ‘taste’ – but was more accurately described as a full-on munch on the locks of yours truly, as what remained of my soggy hair strands confirmed.
For all its quirks, Birdwatchers’ Wives is undeniably memorable and one can’t help but admire Smith’s total immersion role, but as a piece of theatre it doesn’t quite take off.
Birdwatchers’ Wives played at Summerhall as part of the Edinburgh Fringe. For more information, see the Edinburgh Fringe website.