Mike Bartlett’s Cock Stands Up Strong in the West End

The In-Person Theatre Review: West End’s Cock

By Ross

I missed Cock (the play), sadly, when it premiered at the Royal Court in 2009 starring Andrew Scott and Ben Whishaw, as well as when it premiered off-Broadway at the Duke On 42nd Street, in New York City, in 2012, starring Cory Michael Smith as John. I’m surprised, as the title is one that certainly grabs attention. At least it grabs mine, and here in London’s West End, with two big star leads, the dashing and talented Taron Egerton (NT’s The Last of the Haussmans; “Rocketman“) alongside the incredible Olivier Award winner Jonathan Bailey (West End’s Company) as the gay couple in the center of this battlefield ring, Cock stands up tall and strong for the whole world to see, thanks to combative stance of playwright Mike Bartlett (King Charles III). He has formulated a ring where the men stand at odds, all of a sudden, out of the blue, all because of an accident followed by a run-in meet/cute with a fellow commuter. Those incidental moments, beautifully engaged with, twists and turns them apart, mainly because of a new surprising love that, as it turns out, just happens to be with a woman, played to perfection by Jade Anouka (Donmar/St Ann’s The Tempest). What will father have to say about this?

It’s a guaranteed wild ride, with multiple rotations in our head spinning around the ideals of attraction, and what pulls us in or out with passion, connection, care, and excitement. It’s the cleverest of constructs, and when this play first threw out this tense conflict of a cockfight around this ring, I’m sure the construction was revolutionary and challenging, but now, with sexual fluidity becoming part of our normal dialogue, especially inside this new sexual generation, the demi-ness of this conflict seems somewhat less shocking. On the other hand, maybe this contest is more timely than ever. Which is a good thing. Who knows, maybe we are more ready and open to hear this tale told than ever before.

Jonathan Bailey and Jade Anouka in West End’s Cock.

The set, designed with a shiny promise by Merle Hensel (Royal Court’s The Glow), with tight lighting by Paule Constable (NT/West End’s The Ocean at the End…) and a solid sound design by Ian Dickinson for Autography (ATC/Broadway’s Hangman), creates a dynamic playing field that resembles a metallic modernist approach to a cockfight pit with rotating circles embedded within to draw us more deeply into the pull and push of attraction and engagement. Director Marianne Elliott (West End/Broadway’s Angels in America) guides us convincingly through Bartlett’s battleground of sexuality, gender expression, and identity giving the whole engagement a precise edge. She lets them hang out in confusion, within their own limited constructs, contorting them in and around one another with expert ease.

The cast spins forth in a modernist dance of separation and connection, engaging their physical selves with erotic compassion, thanks to the solid work of movement director Annie-Lunnette Deakin-Foster (NT’s Rockets and Blue Lights). The tender erotic dance of conflict adds layers of unconscious desire and confusion to the menu, pushing forth the conversations around concepts of excitement and attraction, centering in on the somewhat narcissistic confused energy of Bailey’s character, John, the only one that really gets a name.

Joel Harper-Jackson. (Photo by theheadshotbox.co.uk)

The others are simply given signifiers, like F, played by Anouku, and M, a part that was supposed to be portrayed by Egerton, but sadly, or maybe quite happily, was portrayed spectacularly by one of his understudies, the impressive Joel Harper-Jackson (UK Tour of Kinky Boots). The two are equal in their attention to the details of the dynamic, giving the contest a real push forward into the realm of the not-obvious. The fourth is the wild card, a man referred to as F, dutifully portrayed by the wonderful Phil Daniels (NT/West End’s Carousel; “Quadrophenia“) that gives us a playing field fraught with a strong dose of tension and imbalance.

Playwright Bartlett, we are told, dutifully updated the language of the play, edging the topic into a more current blend and open discussion of sexual constructs. The ideas placed in the ring are not exactly revolutionary – unless you haven’t been paying attention. Cock plays with the construct of demi-sexuality, laying it on the ground before these players and seeing how they take on the subject. Some of the dialogue feels old and dated, particularly the stereotypes that portray what a gay man should or shouldn’t be, but the play does try to exhibit an honest and somewhat authentic depiction of what a lot of gay men feel about demi-sexuality or even bisexuality; that it is just a confused pathway, rather than a final destination. It’s an idea that still needs to be unpacked for the masses, and for gay culture, as it seems to be somewhat stuck in a few old ideals of what sexuality is allowed and accepted to be.

Jonathan Bailey in West End’s Cock.

John is the pivotal nail in the center of the ring, with everyone else spinning their circles around his confusion and attraction, and Bailey has a magnificent field day with the part. His focus and energy hold the centrifugal force together, keeping it from destroying and pulling it all apart. He utilizing his charm and his impressive energy to makes it all believable, and in that framework, he finds electricity. The part borders on the narcissistic, but Bailey’s star power convinces us that he is worthy of all this attention. Harper-Jackson magnificently rises to the occasion as well, stepping in for the movie star and making us never even ponder what we might have missed out on. He captures our complicated heart with his well-formulated performance, easily keeping the imbalance alive with the equally as good Anouku. Daniels as the father of M is also perfect in finding aggressive balance in the rotation, exerting his own quality of force that both keeps the ship rocking with his straightforward defensive.

These four know how to make this work. Even when the play itself feels like it is meandering off into stereotypical formulations. They know how to hold the sharp edges of this circle together, keeping the energy spinning and our hearts and souls engaged. Cock isn’t as shocking as the title might suggest, but the rotation is worth watching, and thanks to a magnificent understudy stepping in for the absent (COVID+) movie star, we all stayed tuned in, right to the very end. Love is a confusing commodity, one not to be forced inside a predetermined box, but a force to be examined throughout, and Bartlett’s Cock deserves our applause for that exciting and passionate confrontation.

Jonathan Bailey, Phil Daniels, Taron Egerton, and Jade Anouka in West End’s Cock running through 4 June at the Ambassadors Theatre, London, UK.

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