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'COCK' review — Jonathan Bailey and Taron Egerton star in Mike Bartlett’s topical yet dated play

Suzy Evans
Suzy Evans

The title of Mike Bartlett’s play is clearly meant to provoke. News articles add asterisks or use euphemisms. Email marketing campaigns censor the name for fear of ending up in spam folders. It’s a little naughty. What does COCK really mean?

When the play premiered at the Royal Court in 2009 starring Andrew Scott and Ben Whishaw as the central couple torn apart by a new (female) lover, the title was seemingly a nod to cockfighting. When the play later premiered off Broadway in New York in 2012 (a production this critic saw) the set resembled a cockfighting ring of sorts, where audience members sat in stadium seats to observe the feuding.

Now, we find ourselves in Merle Hensel’s futuristic spinning design of a set in director Marianne Elliott’s more modern take on Bartlett’s work about sexuality, gender expression, and identity. Conversations around those topics have evolved since 2009 and 2014, and a program note outlines a glossary of LGBTQ+ terms, many of which were not in common usage a decade ago.

However, while Bartlett has updated bits of the play since its premiere and the topic is incredibly timely especially as the spectrum of sexuality and gender continues to gladly become more accepted, there is something about the play that depends on the labels it's trying to oppose.

Even the costumes and nominal letters outline the gendered nature of it all. The characters are M (Taron Egerton), W (Jade Anouka), and F (Phil Daniels). M, the man, is dressed in a blue button-up, while W, the woman, is dressed in a red jumpsuit. The only named character, John (Jonathan Bailey), the one in the centre deciding whether he wants a man or a woman, wears a dull grey t-shirt.

Some of the dialogue relies on tired stereotypes around gay men and hackneyed ideas around heterosexual partnerships. After all, there is no one way to make a family, so conversations between W and John centering biological children and family holidays seem outdated.

Where the story really hits its stride is in discussions of desire, where the binary floats away and the laws of attraction are what govern the scenario. Annie-Lunnette Deakin-Foster’s choreography creates beautiful interludes between scenes, capturing the characters’ angst and lust in fluid movements. When John talks about why he loves W, the conversation becomes more about what makes people compatible and less about a battle of the sexes.

Bailey is an undeniable star and oozes charisma as John; it’s easy to see why anyone would be attracted to his energy and electricity. He really shines alongside the equally captivating Jade Anouka as W, particularly in the pair's first encounter. Alongside Taron Egerton as M, the chemistry falls a little flatter, which is appropriate for a flailing relationship but at times, it’s hard to see where the love is there. Egerton earns lots of laughs with his performance, but the balance is off in the more sincere scenes.

Unfortunately, this COCK isn’t as titillating as its title seems to suggest. There are glimpses of pure passion and electricity, but there are also some overdone and tired tropes. However, watching COCK illustrates how far we’ve come in society’s road to acceptance — and how far we still have to go.

COCK is running through 4 June at the Ambassadors Theatre. Book COCK tickets on London Theatre.

Photo credit: Jonathan Bailey and Taron Egerton (Photo by Brinkhoff/Mogenburg)

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