Review: Cock, Ambassadors Theatre ★★★☆☆

There is no doubting that Marianne Elliott’s revival of Mike Bartlett’s Cock is a starry affair; the autograph hunters amassed outside Ambassadors Theatre attest to that with their armloads of Bridgerton merchandise ready for a willing signatory. There is authorised merchandise inside the theatre, with the 'shocking' title being put to good use with Cock mugs, Cock keyrings, Cock hats and Cock t-shirts. Just the word, mind - no illustrations. 

Played in Merle Hensel’s bare metal set, John (Jonathan Bailey, of the Bridgerton fame) lives with his partner, the unnamed M (Taron Egerton), until a brief break-up sees him falling in love, to his own surprise, with a woman, the unnamed W (Jade Anouka). Despite reuniting with M, John continues his relationship with W resulting in an unlikely love-triange between two gay men and a straight woman, until John is forced to choose which of the paths he will follow. This decision is complicated by the arrival of M’s father, F (Phil Daniels), whose ideas about sexuality are considered to John to be historical artefacts of the 1960’s era.

Taron Egerton and Jonathan Bailey. Photo: Brinkhoff Moegenburg

The play’s issue is that, despite the declaration that the 1960’s ideas about sexuality are outdated, the play itself feels dated too. John’s dilemma on what or who he is seems less of an issue 13 years on since the play’s debut at the Royal Court. Even in 2009, the play’s message was lightweight, offering only the correct assertion that the 1960’s ideas were wrong but going no further. And when the play’s foundation is in that social commentary it questions the fundamental purpose of the play - is it telling us anything at all? If the play isn’t telling us anything, or at the very least if its message has become outdated, then the characters must pick up the slack in driving the play.

There are obvious parallels, then, between Cock and recent productions like Constellations and Betrayal, where a love affair is central to the play. But therein lies the issue with Cock. Where those productions draw you in with characters and the story, none of the characters here are particularly likeable, with the occasional exception of W. And they become less and less likeable as the play progresses, with the downward spiral accelerating throughout the final dinner scene. That said, Barlett’s combative dialogue is especially entertaining here and is continually funny throughout, though he leaves W and F a little unwritten, letting the characters fall into stereotypes.

Jonathan Bailey, Phil Daniels, Taron Egerton and Jade Anouka. Photo: Brinkhoff Moegenburg 

But the performances are excellent, and something of the saviour here. Jade Anouka and Phil Daniels do well despite their underdeveloped characters but it is Bailey and Egerton who really shine in their respective roles. Bailey’s John seems to regress in front of us as he repeatedly fails to make any kind of decision, as M Egerton’s barely concealed vitriol increases as he feels himself lose control of the relationship. They are an entertaining duo but Barlett doesn’t give us the opportunity to buy into their relationship or the relationship between John and W - we do not feel anything for them and therefore it feels like nothing is at stake. Without that tension we are left with an entertaining evening without the drama.

Cock is at the Ambassadors theatre, London, until 4 June



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