Cough (Unhappen) runs at 107 Projects in Redfern from April 10 – 20, 2014. By Emily Calder, directed by James Dalton.
Cough is an unusual little piece of theatre. It covers a subject that I haven’t seen represented before on stage: the imaginative capacity of children, and the angst their parents feel when they do not and cannot follow. It took me a little while to warm up to, but overall, I thought this was really intriguing theatre.
There are two sets of characters in Cough. First, there are the children: Isla (Vanessa Cole), Jess (Melissa Brownlow) and Finlay (Tim Reuben), who all go to the same daycare. There they meet Frank (Tom Christophersen), older and wiser than them at the grand age of three and a half, who tells them about a terrifying monster called Brian who lurks nearby. And then there are the children’s parents: Isla’s mother Isabelle (Cole), Jess’ mother Julie (Brownlow) and Finlay’s father Clive (Reuben), angsting over the minutiae of their children’s lives and the parent/teacher politics at the daycare. And meanwhile, a mysterious tree has appeared in the daycare’s backyard and continues to grow and grow and grow...
It took me some time to work out just what was going on in this play, and just how realistically I should treat it. In the end, if I had to fit it into a genre, I would probably call it magic realism. The world of the children is both imaginary and not, loomed over by the figure of Brian and the tree (a kind of evil Faraway Tree, as far as I could tell). The parents are worried about very normal, grounded things – germs from the sandpit, how much their kids are eating – but at the same time, cannot dismiss or deny the effects (sometimes physical) that Frank’s fantastical stories have had on their children. What I initially thought was not working within the play actually turned out to be one of its greatest strengths: a kind of deliberate ambiguity between the real and the imaginary. The ending is proof positive of this – I won’t spoil it, but it’s wonderfully staged and viscerally affecting.
There is something very sinister at play in Cough, an ongoing suggestion that maybe the monsters of our childhood do not disappear, we just forget how to see them. The ambiguity I highlighted above plays into this beautifully. However, sometimes I think the play runs the risk of being too ambiguous – for example, there’s a major reveal at the end about Frank, but the implications of this are never really explored. Similarly, a few other narrative threads and motifs are raised and then forgotten (the cough, for one – what happened to that?). I would have liked a few of the loose threads to be tied up better. I also would have liked to see the play edited a little tighter, as there were some points where I felt my attention drifting. At an hour and twenty minutes it’s not long, but I think if it was brought down to an hour or so it would be a much stronger piece of theatre.
One of the things I liked best about this play was the way it was staged. I was initially unsure about the use of dolls (they were used to represent the children at the beginning of the play), but they grew on me. This is a very small space and it was used to wonderful effect, particularly vertically – the ladder scene at the end was superb. One thing I would note, though, is that the smoke machine is used and abused, to the extent where I think it set the fire alarm off at the end of the performance I saw. I’m not a smoke machine fan at the best of times, and this really was a bit much. (The title “cough” was quite apt for many people in the audience!)
Overall, although there were some areas for improvement, I really liked Cough. It’s one of the more unusual pieces of theatre I’ve seen in 2014, and I applaud its ambition and creativity. I’ll be very interested to see what Unhappen do next.