“Helen Ramsay is brilliant as the bolshie good-timer, leaning into a very believable sibling-like petulance”
A and B have been friends for a few years now. Best friends even, and they’ve come to rely on one another for the truth. But B has started seeing someone who disapproves of A, and it’s tearing them apart.
The unlikeliness of their friendship is already in the script: A is rambunctious and charming, whereas B is introspective and uptight. But both love a tussle, and they’re not afraid to disagree, which is, we’re told, the crux of their relationship. That’s all well and good, but we never really get to see the good bits of the friendship, or, in particular, what B has to offer A. It’s hard to know whether this is the fault of writer Mike Bartlett or director James Haddrell, or maybe the chemistry just isn’t right, but ultimately, whilst A is definitely not perfect, B comes across a drag as well as a bad friend, so it’s kind of hard to support the friendship when it seems doomed from the get.
As we’ve come to expect from Bartlett, the script is quippy and clever, latticing political eloquence with nonsense banter. Helen Ramsay is brilliant as the bolshie good-timer, leaning into a very believable sibling-like petulance. Lauren Drennan definitely has the harder job, but despite her seeming fairly unlikeable in her relationship with A, she comes alive when she turns to the audience to speak directly about her choices, which does give us an idea of who she might’ve been when they first met.
But given there isn’t really a set- just a white curtain, and a coat rack- there’s a lot of pressure on Ramsay and Drennan to keep the audience entirely focused and engaged with pure dialogue for just under two hours, which would be a struggle with even the quippiest and most eloquent of scripts. Even a sofa would’ve done, or a couple of chairs, just to give some texture.
Without giving the whole thing away, the ending seems a little overwrought considering the careful nuance of the plot until then. Also, because a suspension cable is required in the last scene for health and safety, Ramsay quickly runs off stage at a crucially tense moment to be clipped on, and the audience is blasted with an angsty soundtrack as the stage momentarily blacks out, as though we might not notice this massive interruption, and I’m left feeling confused and distracted just when I’m supposed to be gripped.
It’s hard not to be particularly critical with a Mike Bartlett play, considering how well received the prolific writer has been in the last few years. But although I wanted this to be exceptional, it’s still very good, with moments of brilliance; a thoughtful consideration of what we expect of our friendships, and how much is too much.
“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.