REVIEW: Grief is the Thing with Feathers, The Barbican

Based on award-winning novel by Max Porter, Grief is the Thing with Feathers premiered in Galway last year. Now this tale of loss and grief, adapted for the stage and directed by Enda Walsh, arrives at the Barbican for its London run.

(c)Colm Hogan

Produced by Wayward Productions Grief is the Thing with Feathers is a story of a bereaved father (played by Peaky Blinders star Cillian Murphy) trying to come to terms with the unexpected death of his wife (Hattie Morahan). The dad, who is attempting to finish a manuscript on his hero Ted Hughes, lives in a London flat with his two boys (played by David Evans and Leo Hart on press night). While they’re busy fending off “orbiting grievers” trying to do good and struggling to cope with their new, unexpected lives they’re visited by Crow, who vows to stay for as long as he is needed. The bird becomes a grief counsellor for the family, a protector from demons and a crazed babysitter for the children, rutting at tables, tasking the boys to craft models of their mum and promising to bring the best one to life.

Grief is the Thing with Feathers is very much a visual production. Jamie Vartan’s set is accompanied by projections of the dad’s crow-obsessed artwork, quotes and scratchings of chapter headings. At times this is a little too jarring and overwhelms, particularly when accompanied by Teho Teardo’s striking score and often frantic lighting and sound courtesy of Adam Silverman and Helen Atkinson respectively, but it also reflects the chaos that death leaves in its wake. Meanwhile the use of video footage, of home movies of the mother, is a moving touch and the image of the two boys staring longingly at their mum on screen could melt even the iciest of hearts. The more effecting parts are the quieter moments, where purely the beautiful script and performances are allowed to speak for themselves and the audience gets a real sense of the family’s loss and struggle to carry on with every day life.

Cillian Murphy is the star of the show, dazzling with a jaw-dropping performance as dad and Crow. He encapsulates a grieving widower perfectly, his performance as the desperate father subtle, relatable and beautifully tender. The scene where he lists all of the things his wife, his fellow “dinner party post-mortem bitch,” will no longer do is one of the more devastating moments of the whole production. With a quick flip of his black, towelled dressing gown hood Murphy then becomes the imposing Crow, drawing his arms behind his back to resemble wings and hopping about the stage with endless energy, using a voice distorter to project himself as he taunts and teases. The two young actors are impressive as the quiet, withdrawn sons who not only dealing with the death of their mother, but the struggle of their father too.

Grief is the Thing with Feathers is not going to be to everyone’s taste, but it’s an intense, gripping production highlighting the devastating impact that loss can have on a family. What really makes it is the electrifying performance by Murphy, and it’s worth a watch purely for the 85-minute acting masterclass you’re sure to witness. Brave, bold and beautiful, Grief is the Thing with Feathers is a play you certainly won’t forget.

By Kirsty Herrington

Grief is the Thing With Feathers continues to play at the Barbican until the 13th April.

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐

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