Cock

Cock
Cock
Photo credit: Brinkhoff Moegenburg
 

“But that’s what this is, isn’t it? The ultimate bitch fight.” Watching Mike Bartlett’s play Cock today, it seems strange to think that it was actually written 13 years ago, as it covers themes that are so resonant with life in 2022. Presumably it has had some tweaks over the years, as language and laws have changed, but the core of it remains the same and is just as relevant as ever – perhaps even more relevant, as more terminology is generated (or simply comes over to the mainstream) on a regular basis. This latest production sees the play make its West End debut, with Marianne Elliott directing Jonathan Bailey, Taron Egerton, Jade Anouka, and Phil Daniels at the Ambassadors Theatre for a limited run.

John (Bailey) has been with M (Egerton) for several years, and has only ever dated men – so imagine his surprise when W (Anouka) comes into his life, and “biological feelings” start to bubble up inside him. He and M are taking a break from their relationship, so he sees nothing wrong in exploring those feelings; it all becomes a bit too much, however, and John finds himself craving something more familiar. Over the weeks he goes back & forth from M to W, completely indecisive and increasingly unsure of his own identity – and M’s solution? A dinner party à trois.

There is an unofficial Mike Bartlett season in London this spring, with two new plays The 47th and Scandaltown both opening in the next few weeks (by the next month you will have the option of doing a triple bill), but it seems fitting that Cock is the one to kick things off, given its decade-long trek to reach the West End. Despite the progress that has been made – for example, since the play’s run at the Royal Court, same-sex marriage has been legalised in the UK, and technological advances allow couples the option of having their own biological child – there is still a long way to go to find true equality. Hopefully, as well as being an entertaining night out, this play might help people to understand some more aspects of LGBTQ+ life that may have previously eluded them.

What immediately grabs you is Merle Hensel’s set design; it’s sparse and metallic, giving the feeling of a pressure cooker – that’s certainly how John is made to feel as events spiral out of his control. The sparseness also allows the words to take centre-stage, with no props and set dressing to distract you from the matter at hand; everything is down to the actors to take you on that journey with them. Annie-Lunnette Deakin-Foster’s movement direction plays a big part here, too – mostly in scene transitions, as John interacts with his two love interests; frenetic and energetic with W (the excitement of the new), and slightly slower-paced and controlled with the familiar presence of M. Femi Tomowo’s compositions enhance this, playing expertly to the mood of the moment.

Though Bartlett was inspired by cockfights when he wrote the play, the way it’s structured is almost reminiscent of a trial; John’s timeline with M comes first, skipping over the parts where W is on the scene, before doing the same thing for John’s timeline with W – and then culminating with them all occupying the same space, M’s father (Daniels) taking on a judge-like role (although he is far from impartial). I don’t think it would be as compelling if it all came out in chronological order, alternating scenes between M and W, as in its current format it keeps you on your toes – you’re led a merry dance believing that John is completely satisfied in his long-term relationship, but by the time W has had her say you’re not so sure. It also links back to John’s realisation that he is two totally different characters depending on which partner he is with; there is a clear difference in him between parts one and two, with his inner conflict driving the final part home.

If you’re going all-in on the minimalist design, you have to have great faith in your actors as all-round storytellers – and they’ve really come up trumps with this cast. Phil Daniels may be waiting in the wings until the final part of the play, but he makes no less of an impact; you can tell that F is well-meaning, though he does occasionally trip himself up as he tries to find the right turn of phrase. There’s a straightforward blokeishness to Daniels’ F, and it’s clear that he has his son’s best interests at heart. It could be easy to make W the villain of the piece, especially with the play’s structure setting you up to root for John’s connection with M, but Jade Anouka plays her as the breath of fresh air that John clearly needs in the wake of his breakup. Her delivery and timing are both superb, shown to full effect when W & John are ‘getting to know each other’ (nudge nudge, wink wink) – the creative employment of the revolve adds to this, making that scene a real highlight.

Insecurity follows M like a black cloud, only growing in strength as the play goes on. Taron Egerton, as M, takes this character trait and weaves it through his entire performance; at one moment completely vulnerable and seemingly powerless to escape a relationship that is doing more harm than good, at others it manifests itself as sarcasm and prickliness. By the time the dinner party comes round, M’s choice of defence is to try to talk and behave more like his father, though it really doesn’t suit him (and John remarks upon him being “so fucking bitchy”). On a lighter note, Egerton has fantastic comic timing and an incredibly expressive face, which allows him to convey so much – making a single word of dialogue go so much further.

Jonathan Bailey is at the centre of all this, as John – and, given the nature of the piece, he barely has a moment of respite in the whole 1h45 running time. To have the stamina for this is impressive in itself, and to maintain such an intense level of performance is mind-blowing. The chemistry Bailey has with both Egerton and Anouka fuels the play, as they bounce off one another and also share intimate moments so credible that it feels borderline voyeuristic sat in the audience. Though he is also strong comedically, the aspect of his performance that really stands out for me comes late on as John finally finds his voice; the anger and frustration he feels as M, W & F try to coax a decision out of him is hard-hitting, and reflects his feelings towards the whole concept of having to label himself. It’s a really powerful moment, and you really feel his dilemma.

I last saw this play at the Minerva Theatre four years ago, and I’d forgotten just how hilarious it is; the heartache and tension is tempered by some wickedly funny one-liners, and all of the actors prove themselves to be completely at home with this. Many of the remaining tickets are expensive, it’s an unavoidable truth, but if you can scrape the cash together (or are lucky enough to get your hands on one of the on-the-day options) it is worth every single penny. My show of the year so far.

 
Cock
Cock
Photo credit: Brinkhoff Moegenburg

My verdict? A play that feels even more relevant than ever, with the perfect cast to tell the story – my show of the year so far.

Rating: 5*


Cock runs at the Ambassadors Theatre until 4 June 2022. Tickets are available online or from the box office – TodayTix runs a daily £20 ticket lottery, and limited standing seats go on sale on the day of each performance.

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