Cougar – Orange Tree Theatre, London

Writer: Rose Lewenstein

Director: Chelsea Walker

Reviewer: Scott Matthewman

One of the many downsides to corporate travel is that every hotel room ends up looking much the same as any other. That plays into the literary and design aesthetic of the Orange Tree Theatre’s latest collaboration with English Touring Theatre, which continually flashes forward to a succession of identikit bedrooms.

Charlotte Randall’s Leila is a jet-setting speaker at environmental conferences, putting the case for corporate sustainability. If companies can find a profit in doing the right thing, they will do it, she reasons. And yet outside, the world burns as the reality of climate change induces mass migration, extreme weather conditions and civil unrest.

The title, Cougar, implies a predatory relationship between Randall and Mike Noble as John, the young barman who she pays to accompany her on all her foreign trips but who she refuses to introduce to her business colleagues. And there is a common thread between Leila’s conference talks and her relationship: the thought that money can solve, or even compensate for, the inherent problems.

Director Chelsea Walker keeps up the tensions and attractions between Randle and Noble throughout, ensuring that their unusual symbiosis becomes the most believable aspect of this speculative work. And the gradual deconstruction of Rosanna Vize’s deceptively simple bedroom set is an effective, if rather too literal, parallel to the global unrest outside every window out of which the mismatched couple morosely gaze.

Lewenstein’s dialogue has a repetitive element to it, mirroring the uniformity of the multiple rooms Leila and John inhabit. But that also carries with it an element of uselessness: their relationship develops through entropy and atrophy, rather than at the behest of the characters.

There’s a sense of futility at play here, and that, unfortunately, bleeds into the experience of watching it. Cougar’s biggest statement is that talk and bluster will do nothing to change anything, and it becomes an illustration of its own point.

Runs until 2 March 2019 | Image: The Other Richard

Review Overview

The Reviews Hub Score

An exercise in futility

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One Comment

  1. I left the theatre wondering what this play was aimed at. Few major theatres have much use for such a short piece and yet even at 75 minutes Cougar seemed much too long for the material so it’s pretty much confined to the ‘Fringe’ I should think – preferably with a great deal of cutting. There is plenty to say about the two themes I identified in the piece but neither the themes nor the characters are properly developed here. There is a great play to be written about an economic system that has made commodities of everything in sight and is now busily trying to turn environmental awareness into a profit-bearing industry with a lucrative gravy train for the pampered classes; but Cougar is very definitely not that great play. To be fair, it doesn’t even seem to be trying to be such a masterpiece. In tandem with the environmental theme there is the sexual exploitation issue with the woman in the dominant role for a change. There is a strong sense of deliberateness (even ponderousness?) about this: Layla pays for everything, keeps John strictly separate from her business contacts, slaps him down when he questions her behaviour, even physically strikes him when she gets frustrated. The role-reversal is even carried into the staging of the play itself with the gratuitous nudity being just male. It is, by the way, so obviously analogous to the gratuitous female nudity of the standard 1970s sex comedy (the pretext for John to get his kit off was, I noted with a smile, that Layla has bought him some posh undies and why doesn’t he try them on) that it’s hard to believe it wasn’t a conscious reference. The obvious thing would seem to be to interweave these two themes but they remain, in my view anyway, curiously separate. And instead of fleshing out the two characters Lewenstein seems to have chosen just to throw them into a hell where they torment each other over and over in very similar ways, in very similar rooms, even in very similar clothes in, supposedly, different towns all over the world. As your review suggests, it really won’t do to ram home the message of the protagonists’ ennui by visiting a parallel boredom on the audience. It needs to be offset by contrasting scenes or carried by sparkling dialogue – and neither was present here.

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