APP’s Review of "The Cord” now playing at the Bush Theatre in London

Bijan Sheibani’s new play, The Cord, explores the intergenerational impact of postpartum psychosis - of becoming a father with knowledge of your own mother’s PP many years before.

Bijan - an award-winning director (Netflix’s One Day, The Arrival, Morning Song) - worked with APP to research the experiences of women who had become grandparents after PP, and of adult children whose mums had experienced PP.

APP’s Chief Executive, Dr Jess Heron, reviews "The Cord”: 

'Most couples, struggling with a new baby, experience sleeplessness, anxiety and burnout, but it is the unsaid in this play which enthrals.

Bijan captures the realities of new fatherhood, motherhood and grandparenthood with beautifully crafted dialogue. Through the comfortable and funny domestic realism, we gradually become aware of an unresolved, unspoken, hinterland - which a new baby has the power to detonate in the present. We witness the newborn’s ability to at once give joy and pleasure, rake up pain; and fracture present relationships: loving son with his mother; husband with his wife; father with his newborn; and son in law with his in-laws. All are affected by the power of this past ‘illness' yet this is only obliquely referred to and remains largely hidden throughout the play.

The postnatal narrative is somewhat turned on its head. We expect the young mother, Anya, to be the one struggling, not her partner, Ash. The slow-burn range of emotions he suffers, as he lives the marginalisation of fatherhood, is set within the context of two typically supportive, doting families, both seemingly operating with the very best of intentions. This normality, with an underbelly hiding something more, makes for an edgy juxtaposition - and has us wanting to scream: “Communicate: things are unravelling!”

Instead, throughout the play, we get weighty pauses and brief superficial responses between all three characters until, like a pressure cooker, the lid comes off. The exchanges between Anya and Ash are so realistic, yet, particularly in Ash's dreams, we realise that something else, something heavier is at play. Ash struggles to find an outlet for his own emotions and mental health experiences in the spaces between the needs of the other characters.

The climax sees Ash finally break down and hit out at his mother about not talking to him about what has been hinted at throughout: the losses, guilt and shame of her postpartum psychosis, and resulting physical disability, some 30 years before. Despite her deep and abiding love for her son and her delight at the arrival of a new grandson, this unspoken experience of mental illness has the power to impact the family many years later. Similarly, the new baby has awakened the memories of postnatal mental illness for Ash's mother who wonders whether she will be accepted as as safe as the normal in-laws.

Who should watch this play: 

We wouldn’t recommend this as a watch for anyone newly recovering from PP; those feeling vulnerable, struggling with parenting - or perhaps indeed anyone who has experienced PP and is not yet a grandparent. Postpartum psychosis is not specifically mentioned, just alluded to. It is set at a time when there was much more stigma and secrecy around PP. We feel the play might increase anxiety for people who have had PP about how our adult children will perceive us, or how they may struggle with mental health themselves. It is a story about the journey to fatherhood of one family and the stresses involved when two families become one. While PP is relevant to the family backstory - it’s not a play about PP and not intended to represent the PP experience.

It is a beautifully written, beautifully choreographed, beautifully scored production and will be of interest to anyone with an interest in parenthood, relationships, and the mental health of fathers in particular. It may be of interest to grandparents who had PP many years ago. Similarly, it will be thought-provoking for the adult children of people who have had PP and may reflect - or be in stark contrast - to their own experiences of becoming a parent.' 

The Cord is showing at The Bush theatre, Shepherds Bush, London until 25th May 2024. Find out more here.