Theatre Review: Cock (Ambassadors Theatre, London) ★★★★

Mike Bartlett’s Cock, last seen in London in 2011, is not just a source of endless childish sniggers in the West End—though we are grateful for that—it is an innovative revisiting of an important queer play, directed by Marianne Elliott. Barlett was inspired by cock fighting in Mexico, mashed up with questions about sexuality and identity that seem even more relevant today than in 2009 when he wrote it.

With a stripped-back design by Merle Hensel, the circular set has no furniture, and shifts on a revolve at the centre of the stage; a reinvention of the original staging that had the actors and audience inside a wooden ‘cock pit’. It feels like the best way to update the look and feel of the piece. The lighting and sound, by long time collaborators of Elliott’s Paule Constable and Ian Dickinson, create a bubble-like environment that the characters are trapped in and focuses attention on the vital element of this piece: Bartlett’s words.

Jade Anouka as W and Jonathan Bailey as John in Cock. Photo credit: Matt Crockett.

Elliott once again shows her mastery of the humanity in stories, quickly finding the heart and emotion between central characters John (Jonathan Bailey) and M (Joel Harper-Jackson, who took over the role after Taron Egerton’s departure). Bartlett’s writing is witty and sharp and the style, foregoing the context of naturalistic drama, would make it challenging to connect for some directors and actors, but Elliott manages it. It’s stylised, infused with movement sequences that both flesh out and abstract the story at once. But the focus on people is what draws us in and keeps us invested in these characters.

Jonathan Bailey as John and Jade Anouka as W in Cock. Photo credit: Matt Crockett.

We are sucked in at first by Bailey’s manic energy as John, but the counterbalance of M and his struggles pull us in further. The dialogue is fast and funny and it would be easy to get lost in that—particularly with such strong performers—however Elliott keeps the human relationships at the heart of her production and by the final scenes we’re quietly devastated as things unravel. The focus on people, dialogue, and emotion is the real heart of what is also a complicated conversation around labels. Questioning how labels serve us, and how we evolve in and out of the boxes we put ourselves in, and crucially whose issue is that; our own or other people’s?

Cock asks many things of its audience. It interrogates the strength of a long term relationship, asking what of love, care, affection or sex is enough to sustain it? Why should we sustain it? For the sake of it? Because society says we should? There are parallels here with Elliott’s recent tour-de-force gender-swapped Company.

Joel Harper-Jackson as M in Cock. Photo credit: Matt Crockett.

When John struggles in his relationship with M, he has sex with another person, a woman. Having always identified as gay, when he goes back to M, this causes friction between them. Not only is M upset at the perceived indiscretion (were they broken up? Were they in Friends’ Ross and Rachel territory on a break?) The tension arises from jealousy. Does she (W, played by Jade Anouka) offer him things M does not? Was what John had with M all for nothing? All a mirage? Was John lying to himself and by association M? Or was W just an experiment? The short version is John doesn’t know. The long version maybe is does he have to? Who is the labelling serving? While we might want to knock heads together to sort out the messy relationships, do the questions of John labelling himself serve anyone if they don’t even serve John himself?

Jonathan Bailey as John in Cock. Photo credit: Matt Crockett.

This is where Bartlett’s play has truly grown into itself in the decade since it was first performed. We are more astute in our knowledge of labels now and understand more nuances and arguably more accepting of them as a society too. But are we also too hung up on what labels mean externally, without really allowing those labels to truly serve people? John argues that when came out he had to become that label. He talks in a moving speech about how he needed to become enough of the things that fit that label for society, and later for M. That he doesn’t know what label he is anymore is a by-product of that and maybe our queer community too, and beyond. Have we created a situation where we have many labels that help us understand the world, but which also box people in too narrowly? John is unsure who he is in spite of them, and really the heart of Bartlett’s writing here is the suggestion that no label can give you who you are, you need to figure that out for yourself.

Jonathan Bailey as John in Cock. Photo credit: Matt Crockett.

Cock doesn’t offer definitive answers, which is likely why it has aged so well. What it does offer is some precision performances, with Bailey perfectly embracing the chaos of John’s mind but also the vulnerability at his core. Jade Anouka spars well with him as W and in a short amount of time makes real the connection between them. She also asserts her presence in this male-dominated piece and creates a rounded believable character who doesn’t feel tagged on for plot reasons. While Phil Daniels as withering father, F, becomes an astute outside observer of the situation and wry societal commentator. Daniels does this with heart and compassion, giving a grounded quality to his performance. Joel Harper-Jackson offers an understated but quietly powerful performance. His energy is a steady counterpoint to Bailey’s boundlessness, but he delivers an equally heartfelt and at times heartbreaking portrayal of a man losing who he loves, and losing himself. Harper-Jackson is steady and assured in the performance, which makes the emotional heavy lifting of the role look easy. Given he stepped in and stepped up full time unexpectedly, Harper-Jackson is also a testament to the talent of understudies. Anyone who get to see him in the role won the theatre ticket lottery of 2022.

Joel Harper-Jackson as M in Cock. Photo credit: Matt Crockett.

Cock remains an astute observation of life, labels, and relationships. Brought to the stage with heart and sensitivity by Elliott and an incredibly talented cast. It’s a laugh-cry-think kind of a play. And, yes, it has a title that none of us are mature enough to utter without a snigger.

By Emily Garside

Cock runs at The Ambassadors Theatre, London until June 4th 2022. Tickets are available here.

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