Early Bird, part of the Finborough's season of new plays, is a deeply unsettling, claustrophobic 70 minutes of theatre.
From the moment you walk into the theatre - which designer takis has staged in-the-round, allowing for the accommodation of just 30 theatregoers at a time - and take in the great glass box containing the shut-in actors in the centre of the room, you know this is not going to be an easy ride.
Leo Butler's play was always going to be a difficult ask - it's a piece about the disappearance of a child - but in the hands of Catherine Cusack and Alex Palmer, the two actors charged with showing us the aftermath of this terrible situation, it becomes aggressive, ambiguous and intensely creepy.
They play Debbie and Jack, a seemingly ordinary couple suddenly immersed deep in a traumatic incident. Donnacadh O’Briain's production uses jagged inserts of noise and music, exploiting the confines of their observational prison to the full, and there's not a laugh in this piece as both monologue for dear life, occasionally peering straight at audience members with a piercing gaze.
The way the pair play the story deliberately leaves everything up for debate. What actually happened to Kimberley, the aforementioned child? Did the child really disappear? Did she exist in the first place? Does Jack even exist? Or perhaps Debbie is the figment of imagination in Jack's twisted mind – it's impossible to tell.
By keeping the cast down to just two actors, the audience is subjected to searingly awkward moments as each actor impersonates the lost child – particularly so when Ryan turns into Kimberley, his body language shifting quite strikingly as Cusack tickles his sturdy frame.
Clever moments abound, such as when Jack fakes out the audience by implying sexual abuse of his child but then reveals that in fact he's committed nothing of the sort. Butler's writing is intriguing, if sometimes overly repetitive, and ultimately unfulfilling.
Reading in the programme that Palmer and Cusack are a real-life married couple, it is a pity, if not wholly surprising, that the chemistry between the two seemed somewhat lacking. While both were able to summon up deep reserves of anger, they failed to connect on any other level. Their cuddles and singing scenes seemed forced, their affection unreal.
It must be difficult to play something this dark with your real partner, and neither actor managed to take themselves over the boundary in this instance. This is, it goes without saying, not the lightest of nights out, although the brevity of the play does mean you'll be able (and will need) to wind down with a glass or two afterwards.
This review was originally published on www.musicomh.com