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November 22, 2021

Lisa Carroll on writing Cuckoo


Lisa Carroll’s debut full-length play Cuckoo was performed at Soho Theatre in 2018, and was shortlisted for both the Verity Bargate Award and Papatango New Writing Prize. The play takes a fresh, funny and unflinching look at what it means to be young in Ireland today. Here, Lisa discusses how she approached writing the play and its effervescent dialogue, and how she balanced challenging themes with moments of laugh-out-loud comedy.

Can you describe your play Cuckoo in a few sentences?

Cuckoo is a coming-of-age story set in Crumlin, a suburb of Dublin, following two outcasts: motor-mouth Iona, and her tailcoat-wearing best friend Pingu.

Sick of being bullied for their differences, they decide to move to London to find their tribe. However, when their announcement attracts the attention of the popular kids, Pockets, Trix and Toller, a shocked Iona and Pingu suddenly find themselves the centre of attention – and they are loving it.

Iona, drunk on her newfound popularity, reveals the ugly side of her ambition to be popular, leaving her and Pingu’s friendship and dreams of a better life in tatters.

Where did the inspiration for the piece come from?

I had a few disparate ideas that I knew I wanted to pull together into a play. I had a strong sense of the character Pingu, and challenged myself to write a character who does not speak a word throughout the play, but has as strong a presence and inner life as any of the other characters.

I also had the actor, Caitríona Ennis in mind for Iona (who eventually ended up playing her in the original production at the Soho Theatre). Caitríona is a force of nature, and having her in mind when writing meant I could really let loose with Iona, making her a complicated and blazing character.

I also noticed, when I was moving from Dublin to London myself, that some friendships that had grown apart in the preceding years suddenly resurfaced, and I found that a fascinating phenomenon. While I was glad of the attention, a part of me had wondered where it had been all that time when I was around! That gave me the central kernel of the story idea, to see how far that feeling could go.

Slang and colloquialisms are used throughout, so that the script reads on the page as it would be spoken aloud. Why did you make this creative choice and how did you about crafting the dialogue in this way?

I absolutely love language and how every place in the world has its own unique turn of phrase and humour. For me, that’s where the colour in dialogue comes from, and it makes it incredibly fun to write.

Irish people, Dubliners, and indeed Crumlin folk, have a particular way of speaking, which I wanted to capture on the page. Writing in perfect written English wouldn’t have captured the heart of the place I was trying to represent. I remember when we were editing the play ready for printing I had to go back through and put back in all the ‘incorrect’ spelling and words!

In terms of crafting the dialogue in this way, it was a case of being as true as possible to the words, rhythms and patterns I’d heard when I was living in Ireland. I would also get in touch with close friends still based in Ireland to sense-check phrases.

At one point, I needed some humorous ways of insulting someone and asked an Irish actor friend – the stuff he came out with was hilarious! Imagining the actors saying the lines was also helpful – as well as making sure that we had Irish actors for the production itself.

In its exploration of teenage relationships and identity, the tone of the play veers from laugh-out-loud comedy to moments of shocking cruelty. How did you balance this in your writing?

Comedy is an important tool for me in all my writing, for a number of reasons. Firstly, I strongly believe we go to the theatre to have a good time and be entertained, and there is nothing better than having a good belly laugh. Also, there is nothing quite like it for your ego as a playwright to hear a room full of people laughing at your jokes.

At other times, comedy is a device used very deliberately for effect. For example, in Iona’s opening monologue, I knew I needed to make it funny to get the audience on her side quickly, despite her faults, as the protagonist of the play. We tend to like people who we find funny.

In more serious dramatic moments, comedy is a brilliant pressure-release valve that gives the audience a moment to relax, so the intensity doesn’t become overbearing. It’s also a fantastic way of skewering behaviours or opinions, for example with the ‘Crexit’ scene (Trix’s campaign that Crumlin follows Britain’s suit with Brexit) in the middle of the play.

Having moments of lightness gives you the room to have those moments of darkness or cruelty, because the audience feels safe, or is able to look at difficult topics that might otherwise become too much to sit through.

What advice would you have for companies looking to stage the show in future?

I hope that companies have a great time staging the play in the future. It’s designed to be fun and playful, so I hope folks have a ball keeping that spirit alive.

Irish accents can be tough, particularly the specificity of Crumlin. We had a lot of fun in rehearsals listening to people like the fighter Conor McGregor (there’s a brilliant voicemail of his sister giving out to a dog groomer on YouTube), which truly captures the spirit of the play. I’d suggest working hard on the accent and keeping the colloquialisms in, since the place is as much a character in the play as anything else.

It’s also important to mention that Pingu ought to be played by an actor who identifies as non-binary (of course other characters can be too, but this identity is at the heart of Pingu’s character). Pingu is a difficult character to play, because they don’t speak, so it’s vital to create a clear, truthful performance that doesn’t end up veering into mime or melodrama.

We were fortunate in our production when we found the actor, Vinnie Heaven: they have an incredibly expressive stage presence, physicality and face, so the emotion always came across, but without feeling like they were having to ‘demonstrate’ what Pingu felt. While the play and characters are quite heightened, they still need to feel human for the audience to relate to them.

What is it about writing for theatre specifically that appeals to you?

I always wanted to write for theatre because of the sense of community it creates. As a member of a youth theatre, rehearsing plays and making life-long friends was the greatest joy of my teen years. Plays bring people together, from the cast and creative team to the audience, and I think that’s incredibly special. Nothing beats sharing a
n experience in a room full of people, imagining and laughing together.

I love how theatre exists so fleetingly, just that night, in that way, before it’s gone forever. So everyone is always witnessing something special for the first and last time. I love that theatre is live and unpredictable, and you can literally feel people leaning forward in their seats.

Theatre also lets you be so imaginative in how you decide to stage and represent things, and where you invite the audience to join in on that act. It’s so collaborative and magical.

Learn more about licensing Cuckoo and buy the script.

Photo: Ste Murray