Review: COCK

Rowan Gow 13 November 2019

Brilliantly intense acting with sharp direction makes COCK an enthralling study of relationships and manipulation.

I will admit that upon hearing the premise of Mike Bartlett’s play COCK, I felt somewhat pessimistic – the 10 second pitch is that John, who has thought he is gay all his adult life, falls in love with a woman, who subsequently battles it out with John’s longterm boyfriend over who can ultimately end up with John. Hearing murmurings about the play’s problematic nature, I felt an uneasy expectation of a biphobic narrative.

I can confidently say that my uncertainty was totally shattered. COCK is a deeply intelligent production that offers an incredibly polished look at relationships, expectations and the way in which queer people are constrained. More on that later: such a well realised production makes for a review with plenty to consider.

On a technical level, the performance was superb – Cock’s cast are some of Cambridge’s most seasoned actors, and it shows.

We begin in Act 1, with John (Jamie Sayers) and his boyfriend M (Joe Pieri) in a sequence of moments in their relationship. I was struck by the genuine chemistry, between the two, utterly convincing as a long-term couple, with minor mannerisms of physical affection and the playful persona of their interactions seamlessly portrayed.

Image credit: Bella Biddle

Both Sayers and Pieri demonstrate great versatility, with some expertly delivered comic moments, particularly Pieri’s snarky stabs and dryness. This comic sense effortlessly bleeds into their many moments of hostility, and their characters are far from one-note; we see Sayer’s deft characterisation, using quirks in speech and deflated body language, across from Pieri’s guarded rigidity, and subsequently the brilliant range in going beyond these.

Sayers’ moments of intense release of frustration and pressure are deployed sparingly to perfectly allow for buildup and weight of tension.

A particular raw point emerges when John says “You’ve always made me feel like shit because you’re so fucking insecure”. We are struck by the stark power imbalance in the relationship, and the subsequent cruelty inflicted by those already suffering.

Hannah Lyall as W also does well in portraying a realistic character who feels grounded and three dimensional, avoiding the potential pitfall of a seductress or a lazy symbolic stand-in for women or the feminine generally. This gives her and Sayers a believable chemistry; in a clever contrast to John’s dynamic with M, this is a depiction of the curious, excited feeling of a new relationship.

Image credit: Bella Biddle

In a completely different style, Kim Alexander as M’s mother nails the overbearing, outdated parental figure in a well-placed contrast to the others’ younger demeanours. Alexander has an acidic hostility in her interactions with Lyall, and does well in giving a multi-faceted performance to the script’s possibly barer archetypal character. Credit must be given to the whole cast for such a high level of polish and professionalism on show – delivery of dialogue was so well paced and natural, in tandem with a clear familiarity with the material and the audience that I forgot I was watching student theatre altogether.

The directorial choices made by director Maya Yousif pairs well with Isobel Wood’s set design, simultaneously bold and perceptive.

The strikingly white walls and minimal set give an immediate sense of the surreal, enhanced by the total absence of props and few lighting changes. The sequence of events and interactions, a rapid collage of intimacy, betrayal and conflict against this backdrop feels like an alarmingly lucid dream, descending into a bizarre nightmare culminating in the dinner party from hell. Yousif does well to avoid attempting total realism in such a contrived scenario, instead giving us an intensely intimate view into the characters’ raw emotions and uncensored thoughts.

Going back to the issue of my prior pessimism, at times, I just wanted someone to shout out “bisexuality!”, the elephant in the room, to demolish the nasty binary that Bartlett seems so intent on perpetuating – but at a certain point, when bisexuality is mentioned and quickly dismissed, I got the sense that this is not a biphobic play. Its characters, and the world they inhabit, are, and both the script and Yousif make it quite clear they know this. They understand the flawed, forceful nature of the categories John is confronted with, and making the audience feel this sense of being ensnared and coerced shows a very astute director at work.

Image credit: Bella Biddle

A highlight of this directorial subtlety was John’s rainbow shoelaces – this sole pop of colour, so vibrant against the blank backdrop, is a sophisticated visual cue of contrast, a symbol of queerness broadly conceptualised against the script’s binaries, exposed as absurd.

Maybe I read into it too much, but it felt like the perfect touch of nuanced expression set against the dominant whitewash effect.

I spent most of the show feeling an overriding sense of frustration at the characters, but this feels deliberately elicited. These are not, on balance, very likeable characters, but that is essential in Cock’s ability to confront the painful categories, decisions and relationships people face, create and pit others against. I was left feeling torn up, uncertain and emotional – perfectly demonstrative of the fantastic execution of the show overall. If I’ve left you feeling slightly uncertain as to just how all these things above can be accomplished in one show, I’d say this: see it for yourself, and you’ll find out.

 

5 stars.