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When the Birds Come review at Underbelly Cowgate, Edinburgh – ‘sensitive but slightly clunky’

Phoebe Vigor and Zak Douglas in When the Birds Come at Underbelly Cowgate, Edinburgh. Photo: Alex Brenner Phoebe Vigor and Zak Douglas in When the Birds Come at Underbelly Cowgate, Edinburgh. Photo: Alex Brenner
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Tallulah Brown had a mini-hit last year with Songlines, a soulful slice of gig-theatre storytelling set on the Suffolk coast. For When the Birds Come, she’s travelled halfway around the world to Newtok, an Alaskan village in danger of being swept away by the swollen Ningliq River.

Thirteen-year-old Margaret (an alert, anxious Phoebe Vigor) is planning to leave for Anchorage, but her younger brother Stanley (Zak Douglas, convincingly childish) is not so sure. Over a few slow scenes, we see the two of them try to come to terms with their situation, before hopping a few years into the future, to when their rural village is all but vanished.

Alexander Lass’s production plays out gracefully on Isabella Van Braeckel’s simple set, with Roly Witherow’s score a symphony of creaking, cracking ice and cawing geese. For all the elegiac elegance this allows, though, there’s something slightly amiss here.

Brown’s play is thoughtful and shines an important spotlight on a rarely considered corner of the climate crisis, but she also overloads it with icy imagery, and never nails the rhythm of childish chatter either. It’s tender and tinged with sadness, but its awkwardly overwritten as well. It’s caring but clumsy.

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A sensitive but slightly clunky climate crisis two-hander about an Alaskan village on the edge