DramaFeaturedLondonReview

Cock – Ambassadors Theatre, London

Reviewer: Karl O’Doherty

Writer: Mike Bartlett,

Director: Marianne Elliott

The aluminium walls and rotating platform, brightly fluorescent light, and near constant tension all combine to give a very good impression of being in a large microwave. Everything bounces off these walls, echoes and is magnified. What starts out relatively straightforward becomes messy, unevenly hot and cold, and reminds us that with the same raw material we can have substantially different results with slightly different methods.

That microwave metaphor has been tortured long enough. The fact remains, however, that while visually striking thanks to Merle Hensel’s set and Paule Constable’s lighting this revival feels rewarmed rather than refreshed, and does some great content and ideas a disservice.

It’s centred on a love-triangle. John and M have been in a relationship for seven years, growing so close that M feels they’re like brothers. John sparks a breakup then, when attempting to reconcile, comes clean that he has slept with someone else. Not just anyone else, a woman (W). With both M and W clear that they want to keep John for themselves, a dinner-party showdown is staged (with the inclusion of M’s dad for moral support) where they will fight for John’s love.

Taron Egerton as M steals the show here, not just because of the performance (which is funny, nuanced and charismatic) but because he feels like he’s the one realistic character in the piece. W (Jade Anouka doing a fine job with what she’s given) feels like she exists as a woman to tempt John and bring out this storyline. John himself is just as believable as thousands of other awful men, and Jonathan Bailey portrays his selfishness and indecision well, but once more feels like a vehicle. It’s an odd sensation. We’re observing rather than engaging, witnessing a narrative unfold and a treatise on relationships and identity be delivered rather than being told a story.

With no props at all, and the constant visibility afforded by the rounded silver walls, everything is dominated by the actors’ physicality and Mike Bartlett’s words through the frame of Marianne Elliot’s focused direction. The stage’s rotating platform is used creatively, especially with a weirdly touch-free but highly intimate sex scene with John and W.

Bartlett’s language, as the powerhouse of this intense work,  is varied. There are some passages of absolute delight with emotional richness and zingy bitchiness from M being the highlight. John has some revelatory material about identity not being linked to who he wants to sleep with. Then there’s some speechifying that feels all too obvious. Unfortunately, the scattering of elegant lines are crushed by the play’s own unwieldy and self-assigned weightiness.

It’s a shame; for all the relevance this play could have now in a new world from the one it served when first written, it feels like a wasted opportunity. Still legitimate and important questions about the relationship between sexuality and identity are boldly asked though reedily answered and the material feels a little dated in the context of a conversation that’s evolved in the intervening decade. A more interesting and contemporary theme of being in an unhealthy or abusive relationship (here, just emotionally, not physically) is screaming at us to be taken on, but drowned out in John’s self-pitying moaning. The most important question, why either M or W would actually want to carry on speaking with John is smartly raised but left a true mystery.

Beginning with a breakup, the tension is pegged high from the start and never really lets up even in the moments of gentle intimacy. At an hour and 45 minutes straight through, and alongside this visual starkness, it’s all very intense. That’s great usually, but with intensity there needs to be an equal pay off in terms of message or story and in this crucial element of this revival of Cock just doesn’t deliver.

Runs until 4 June 2022

The Reviews Hub Score

Rewarmed rather than refreshed

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The Reviews Hub - London

The Reviews Hub London is under the acting editorship of Richard Maguire. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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