Reviewed – 15th March 2022
“There’s conspicuous talent on stage in this revival, and a lot of well crafted technique”
Cock by Mike Bartlett, and directed by Marianne Elliott, has just opened for a limited run at the Ambassadors Theatre. This is a revival of a successful production at the Royal Court in 2009. The subject matter of the play addresses the conflicts and confusion that can arise over sexual attraction. Cock begins benignly enough as a lovers’ sparring match between two gay men, but explodes into a cage match during a dinner party between a gay man, a straight woman, and the man who cannot decide between them. Add to the mix an overprotective father who has come to support team gay son, and this is not a polite West End theatre dinner party play, that’s for sure. There are no winners in this match. Cock is a lively, energetic script, but whether audiences will warm to the overly simplistic characterizations of human sexuality, remains to be seen.
To be fair, the playwright is aware of this. As Mike Bartlett points out in the programme for this 2022 revival, we’ve come a long way in thinking about gender and sexuality since 2009. He’s up front about the way in which we think about such matters now. John Mercer, the production’s Gender and Sexuality consultant provides a helpful glossary of definitions in the programme. Does this let Cock off the hook? Not entirely. The character of John, and the only one, ironically, to have a recognizable name, is the young man who cannot decide whether he prefers to stay with his gay partner, or leave to make a life with the straight woman he is also in love with. In 2009, this may have seemed like an either/or choice. But in 2022, there are so many more choices available to these three. Contemporary audiences may ask themselves why the need for drama? There are any number of ways these three characters could negotiate the situation. They could even live together and raise a family.
There’s conspicuous talent on stage in this revival, and a lot of well crafted technique. Marianne Elliott’s deft and experienced direction shows in the confident way the actors seize the space, designed by Merle Hensel. It’s a space for fighting, but also for love making. There is stage magic on the floor, and eye catching neon lights that ascend and descend on trapezes. It’s all very good looking in an austere way. Unfortunately, the austerity extends to the chemistry on stage as well. The actors who play John, W and M are almost too charming and too good looking. It’s hard to believe that they’ll actually get down and dirty to fight for their man (or woman.) And while Bartlett’s choice of language may be explicit, the words are spoken by actors who are often widely distanced on the stage as they speak them, and fully clothed in nondescript attire. (Costume supervisor Helen Lovett Johnson.) For Bartlett’s cock fight idea to work in a completely satisfying way, one has to believe that it’s all going to end in blood. And in this fight, it is the woman, predictably, who exits first. Jade Anouka as W shows her power—and one can see why John (Jonathan Bailey) finds that feminine power irresistible. The ongoing joke about John finding her “mannish” is unfortunate, to say the least. Bailey does a decent job playing the vacillating John. It is Taron Egerton as M who has the most difficult role in a way—he’s got to be likeable enough so that we see the bond between him and John, but also menacing enough to be a real threat when John, he and W come together for the confrontation scene. Phil Daniels as the Father enters rather awkwardly for this showdown dinner party. It’s an overly small role and hardly gives Daniels the space to show what he can do. The acting in this production of Cock is on the cerebral side. But then the script also fails to connect in its dazzling word play. It deflects from the action—the agony of sexual betrayal; of making inauthentic choices; the heart wrenching consequences of having to deny who you really are.
This revival of Cock is a mixed bag. By all means go if you enjoy Mike Bartlett’s talent for dialogue on noticeable display. There’s a lot to appreciate in the experienced acting, directing and design. But this play lacks depth. That might be because it’s now showing its age, and the subject matter needs a fresh, more complex look at a very contemporary topic.
Reviewed by Dominica Plummer
Photography by Brinkhoff Moegenburg
Ambassadors Theatre until 4th June
Previously reviewed by Dominica this year: