Review: Jailbirds

2 star rating
A germ of a good idea lies at the heart of this play which, as an absurdist or comic piece, could be stunning, but it's overworked with odd and dated devices and a lacklustre script.
Jailbirds at the Etcetera Theatre

Image: Split Note Theatre

Closes here: Saturday 8 December 2018

Luke Culloty

Luke Culloty


Moira - Stella Richt

Heath Dane - Helena Simpson

Bheur - Molly Jones

Officer Oml - Evangelina Burton

Guard Piskon - Fred Woodley Evans


Moira and Bheur are miles beneath ground, in a maximum-security prison. They have a job to do. They have to assess the mental health of a serial killer, only to find she is dissecting them.

ActDrop reviews

Peter Brown

Performance date: Monday 3 December 2018
Review star rating image

There's a germ of a good idea lurking at the heart of this futuristic piece.

To reveal what that is would be to give away too much, but it's highly relevant for what is currently being developed in labs all over the world and which - sooner than many of us might think - could be reality.

Good ideas on their own, though, can't carry a drama - or comedy for that matter.

The central plank of a play needs to be backed-up with interesting and stimulating dialogue and intriguing playing.

Sadly, we don't find much of those elements in this production and there's considerable obfuscation that arises from some of the creative decisions which work against exploiting the concept to make a really watchable and riveting play.

For some inexplicable reason, we're underground in a prison housing an evil genius killer called Heath Dane who seemingly has been on the rampage at some point in the past and done several people to death, given herself in and then got locked-up.

Well, I say underground, but with tweeting birds heard in the background at the beginning, maybe we're not underground at all?

But I suspect that director, Luke Culloty, wanted to latch-on to the "bird" element of the title, though it really only serves to confuse.

As we file in to take our seats the entire cast are assembled on stage and doing what look like exercises, or reading from what seems like a manual.

The aim seems to be to indicate preparation for what is to follow, but with so many characters on stage together, it just looks rather odd.

The routine of having actors already on stage before a play starts has become so over-used that it now rarely impresses and often doesn't provide an appropriate lead-in to a story.

Here, the device could have been more effective with just one or two characters or even with just appropriate sound effects.

Once the main action starts, we quickly discover a test is underway, yet we only learn what it's really about right at the very end, and that works effectively even though it leads to some (appropriate) frustration during the course of the play.

The central figure of Heath - the mass-murdering genius who has been incarcerated away from most of humanity - bears traits so similar to those of the well-known evil genius found in the 1991 film The Silence of the Lambs, that she might have been called Annabelle Lecter.

And there are other references to the film's story including notes about perfume, calling the elevator and classical music, and the locational setting feels familiar too.

Now all of that would be perfectly in order for a comedy or spoof, but here it feels derivative at best.

Evil genius's always seem to have a cocky way of strutting and talking and occasionally have to be imbued with a mad cackle to enhance their obvious insanity.

Only the cackle is missing here - but there's plenty of verbal and physical strutting.

The script, though, gives us no glimpse of real genius and the banter between Heath and Moira - who for much of the play seems to be some kind of psychiatrist - is mostly tedious and uninspiring stuff.

Strobe lighting puts in an appearance alongside slo-mo action to an inject a dose of realism in the fight scenes, but those devices are well-worn and now rather dated, even if they do work quite well here at one point.

Though it's played perfectly straight here Jailbirds, with some reworking, could be a stunning spoof that could also drive home salient points and thus provide ample food for thought.

As it stands, the play feels under-rehearsed and, at one and the same time, over-directed and limply directed, leaving one with the overall sense of a missed opportunity.

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