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Cock review at Royal Court Theatre Upstairs

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Some scabs itch so much that you can’t help but pick them. In Mike Bartlett’s compelling new play, Cock, the injury is sex and sexuality. John, played with agonised sensitivity by Ben Whishaw, lives with a man, his long-term lover. Then, one day, he meets a woman – they have sex and John’s world is turned upside down.

Written with toe-curling frankness, wry humour and gut-wrenching precision, the play quickly grows into a tug of love between the nameless man and nameless woman, who each loves John. Andrew Scott’s passionate and excitable boyfriend makes a strong contrast to Katherine Parkinson’s needy but warmhearted woman.

The trouble is that John cannot decide which one he prefers, or loves, or desires. As the arguments go back and forth, it soon becomes obvious that social categories – such as gay, straight or bisexual – are inadequate to compass the mysterious pulls of desire.

But although the text is a compelling account of emotional confusion and the struggle to comprehend the nature of love, Bartlett’s idea of having a bare stage and no props, realised here in James Macdonald’s experimental production, using designer Miriam Buether’s bear-pit set, has mixed results.

Whishaw, Scott and Parkinson, plus Paul Jesson as a surprise dinner-party guest, act out the drama by using very few gestures and no mime. This focuses the audience’s attention on their faces and on the way they hold each other’s looks. At its best, during the sex scene or at the play’s most intense moments, this works well. At other times, you do miss the trappings of a full staging. Yet, despite this caveat, the combination of sharp writing and such acting talent surely makes this the hottest piece of new writing at the moment on the London stage.

Production Information

Royal Court Theatre Upstairs, November 13-December 19

Author
Mike Bartlett
Director
James Macdonald
Producer
Royal Court
Cast
Paul Jesson, Katherine Parkinson, Andrew Scott, Ben Whishaw
Running time
1hr 30mins

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