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‘Cock’ review

  • Theatre, Drama
  • Ambassadors Theatre, Seven Dials
  • 4 out of 5 stars
  • Recommended
Cock, Ambassadors Theatre, 2022
Photo by Brinkhoff-MoegenburgTaron Egerton (M) and Jonathan Bailey (John)
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Time Out says

4 out of 5 stars

Thirteen years on, Mike Bartlett’s ‘Cock’ stands up

Welcome to the dawn of the Mike Bartlett supremacy. Always prolific, soon the playwright will have three shows on in London at the same time: next month, his faux-Renaissance comedy about twenty-first-century London ‘Scandaltown’ will open within days of ‘The 47th’, his faux-Shakespearean verse play about the 2024 US presidential election. 

First though: ‘Cock’!

Way back in 2009, Bartlett scored his critical breakthrough with this gloriously named dark comedy, which ran at the teeny Royal Court Upstairs with a phenomenal cast headed by Ben Whishaw and Andrew Scott. It never made it to the West End: presumably its stars were too busy.

Thirteen years on, though, and ‘Cock’ has finally risen to the heights of Theatreland, as ‘War Horse’ director Marianne Elliott helms a starry production headed up by ‘Bridgerton’ man Jonathan Bailey and film star Taron Egerton.

Bailey is John, a hyperactive, self-absorbed, somewhat manic, apparently gay man in a long-term relationship with Taron Egerton’s withering, hyper-analytical M. They don’t seem to have a nice partnership – they don’t even seem to like each other particularly. They soon break up. John promptly surprises himself by hooking up with a woman, Jade Anouka’s W. A tug of war ensures, as John dithers hopelessly between M and W (subtle eh), his essential lack of desire to doing anything beyond what he feels like doing increasingly infuriating his lovers, each of whom wants commitment. An excruciating dinner for the three of them, at which John is supposed to make a decision, is made even more excruciating by the arrival of M’s loyal, well-meaning dad, F (Phil Daniels, no less), whose tolerance of his son’s sexuality comes twinned with an inability to imagine that John’s may be more complicated.

It’s like Pinter on half a pill

Performed with no props, and with many gestures (such as the removal of clothes) implied rather than carried out, ‘Cock’ is funny and playful but with a stark psychological intensity through its minimalism. It avoids clichés about dinner-party plays or romcoms by stripping out almost all the background detail, and heightening the characters’ traits: M’s wounding nastiness, W’s horny articulacy and, above all, John’s splenetic disbelief at where his own desires are taking him. It’s like Pinter on half a pill: stylised, menacing power play meets actual lols and a final message that’s perhaps not so much a plea for broad-mindedness as a sardonic indictment of how society simply finds it easier to put labels on people.

Elliott’s production feels a bit fiddlier than it needs to be – Merle Hensel’s distorting mirrored set is very clever but also quite distracting, and that’s before you throw in the revolve and the odd bit of choreographed movement. But it’s a good enough play to handle it, and Elliott gets terrific performances out of her actors. Anouka brings a cool mix of innocence, intelligence and good ol’-fashioned horniness to the table. ‘Kingsman’ and ‘Sing’ star Egerton does a good job with M, whose initial, down-to-earth affability masks a waspish, nasty neediness. Daniels is enjoyable as the well-meaning dad, close-minded in his open-mindedness. But it’s Bailey’s terrific performance that pulls it over the line. At first, his John seems vaguely intolerable, dismissive of both M and W’s feelings as he simply does who and whatever he feels like at the time (you could say he’s a bit of a cock). But his agony at genuinely not knowing himself becomes increasingly apparent, leading to the play’s brutally brilliant payoff.

Discourse around sexuality has changed a lot in the last decade and a bit. But I think the strength of ‘Cock’ is that it’s less bothered about deconstructing sexuality than deconstructing society: John’s problem isn’t that nobody can accept that he’s bisexual, but that he’s pressured to make up his mind to be with M or W in order to slot into a neat box that will keep everyone else happy (or at least give them closure). F is in some ways a peripheral figure, but his determination to have resolution for his son feels representative of the way John’s vacillating desires run up against the need for societal approval. Perhaps it has less of the brutal clarity of 2013’s companion piece ‘Bull’ (about workplace bullying), but while society favours monogamy and clarity over messy fluidity, ‘Cock’ stands up.

Andrzej Lukowski
Written by
Andrzej Lukowski

Details

Address:
Ambassadors Theatre
West Street
London
WC2H 9ND
Transport:
Rail/Tube: Charing Cross; Tube: Leicester Square
Price:
£20-£150. Runs 1hr 45min (no interval)

Dates and times

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