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Review: Cillian Murphy's performance flies in Grief Is The Thing With Feathers, Barbican Theatre

Murphy's performance is a triumph, pitching with precision from one emotional extreme to another.

Cillian Murphy Grief Is The Thing With Feathers

Cillian Murphy and writer Enda Walsh's collaborations on stage tend to lean towards the surreal and avant-garde and Grief Is The Thing With Features is no exception.

Based on the award-winning novel by Max Porter, a man (Murphy) is holed-up in his London flat grieving the loss of his wife and the mother of his two sons.

The cacophony of different emotions he and his family is feeling invites a visit by Crow, a destructive, tricky character who threatens to stay until the father and sons no longer need him.

Cathartic vehicle

While crows traditionally represent death and tragedy in literature, here the creature is also a cathartic vehicle through which the family can express those deeper, raw emotions and ultimately learn to survive their grief.

Walsh has chosen to have Murphy play Crow as well as the father.

In a post-show Q&A Porter said when he was first approached about a stage adaptation he pictured a War Horse-style puppet for Crow.  Instead, Walsh has given Murphy a dark green dressing gown to wear.

And, strangely it works. The floppy hood makes a sort of beak shape and when Murphy tucks his arms in a special pocket at his back, his elbows stick out like wings.

Finding the surreal in the domestic

The dressing gown is domestic, indoor clothing - comfort clothing - and Murphy could be a dad playing a game with his sons pretending to be a crow except when he is the bird a manic energy overtakes him. 

He bounces and jumps, at one point perching and leaping from the top of his sons' bunk beds, he is a whirlwind of energy - dark, destructive, dangerous energy. 

While Murphy as the father moves like he is numb with shock and loss, barely going through the motions, Crow becomes the anger, bitterness, fear, regret and guilt.

Tear jerker

In those quiet, still, moments are the observations, recollections and simple declarations of feelings that have you smiling or eyes glistening with tears. 

His sons kaleidoscope through their own set of feelings, the family's surreal emotional battle heightened by the confines of the domestic setting.

It is a story told in chapters, the headings of which are scrawled in projections on the back wall of the flat. Images keep the piece both personal to the family at the centre of the story but also give it a universality.

There are signs that it is a war that can be won - or at least survived - usually in small domestic moments such as a bare kitchen cupboard suddenly having food.


Murphy's performance is a triumph, pitching with precision from one emotional extreme to another.

Grief Is The Thing With Feathers isn't your traditional play instead it mixes movement, dialogue, film and images to present the emotional rollercoaster that is the experience of grief.

At times you feel like you have fallen out of the car and are running to catch up such is the barrage on the senses: This is A Monster Calls but grown up and far uglier. (I can't be the only one who sees the parallels?)

I'm giving it four and half stars. It's at the Barbican until 13 April and is sold out but keep an eye out for returns.

Running time is 90 minutes without an interval.

I've seen Cillian Murphy on stage twice before and he's pretty damn good:

Review of Cillian Murphy in Ballyturk, National Theatre

Review of Cillian Murphy in Misterman, National Theatre