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 The Theatreguide.London Review


Cock
Royal Court Theatre Upstairs November-December 2009

A gay guy falls in love with a girl.

That could be the premise for a farce, a character comedy, a psychological drama or even a tragedy, and it's a credit to playwright Mike Bartlett's ambition that he goes for all of the above, and to his talent that he almost pulls it off.

John and his boyfriend love each other, though the relationship has its ups and downs, and during a down time John meets a very simpatico woman. They go to bed together, he enjoys it, he falls in love with her, and he is very confused.

From that point on the play is a tug of war between his two lovers, with John vacillating back and forth - or, rather, declaring sincere love and sexual attraction to whichever he is with at the moment, unable until the very end to make a decision. And even then it is clear his decision, which may or may not be right, is made for all the wrong reasons, leaving bridges burned but nothing really resolved.

And much of this is funny and much of it is quite moving. The only things that keep it from being totally successful are the fact that John's back-and-forth wavering goes on a bit too long (so that you risk losing patience and wishing he'd just decide and let you go home) and that actor Ben Whishaw never makes John as alive and interesting as the other two characters (so that you risk caring more for their pain than his).

Certainly there's a lot of humour, much of it catching you by surprise in a nonsequitor or perfectly timed reaction or doubletake by one of the performers. Andrew Scott is particularly strong at this, giving the boyfriend a flamboyance that never tips over into camp but puts all his emotions out there for us to enjoy or empathise with.

Katherine Parkinson makes the woman both vulnerable and strong, repeatedly stealing the scene through underplaying. (A fourth character, the boyfriend's father, could easily have been omitted, and exists only to provide someone eager to talk during an awkward dinner scene, and Paul Jesson can do little with him.)

It is when things get serious, when we are invited to feel and appreciate John's inability to make a choice and the pain of the others as they wait for him to decide, that the playwright's control begins to waver for a while, until an ending which is as sad and deliberately unsatisfying as he could wish.

The play is performed in the round in the Royal Court's upstairs studio, and director James Macdonald skilfully manoeuvres this difficult mode by investing all the characters with a nervous energy that keeps them circling each other - only in the very last scene does he nod, letting the actors plant themselves in one spot so that their faces will be turned away from half the audience.

Macdonald also builds on the playwright's intention that there be no props or miming of props by leaving everything to be described in the dialogue. People speak of sitting and eating at a table while standing on a bare stage, and at a key moment John calls attention to the fact that he is holding someone's hand when the actors are in fact not touching.

The device works very well, never better than when Whishaw and Parkinson talk us through their sexual encounter while standing still, in a sequence that is both funny and very sweetly tender.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review - Cock - Royal Court 2009