Cock

In the run-up to Mike Bartlett’s play Cock opening at the Tron Theatre, a lot of people – myself included – clearly couldn’t help have some innocent adolescent fun with its potentially rude-sounding title. Frankly, the idea of respectable Glaswegian theatre goers having to call the box-office to buy “tickets for Cock” left a warm feeling inside during these cold winter nights; no wonder the theatre pushed for its own “wink-wink” hashtag #notaboutchickens.

LGBT rights have, of course, changed significantly in the UK since 2009 when Cock was first performed, but that doesn’t actually alter what seems to be the real point being made here

Arguably Bartlett’s choice of title is a double-edged sword; this is no sensationalist shocker, but rather a sharply written character drama that’s far funnier than you might expect. OK, it does include a quite graphic sex scene, but it’s one that’s described to us by two of the cast, who are fully dressed and not even looking at each other throughout.

And yet, the title also feels right; for words are important – not least because Bartlett places his cast of four on an otherwise empty stage, with no set, no props, no costumes. With their stage limits defined by patterns of light on the floor (nothing too flashy from lighting designer Dave Shea), words are about the only theatrical tool any of the cast have. Three of the characters don’t even have names: only John, ironically enough, the one character who’s paralysing indecision – about whether to stick with longterm gay partner M or to set up home with female teaching assistant W – means he doesn’t know who he really is.

Director Andy Arnold has assembled an excellent cast for this revival: James Anthony Pearson is outstanding as John, the character’s helplessness shining not just in what he says, but physically. Given his own body of work as a writer and director, it’s little surprise that Johnny McKnight manages to wring out the humour in the script. Yet he also quite subtly reveals the depths beneath M’s surface bitchiness, clearly a defence strategy within a relationship that appears increasingly lopsided and ultimately doomed to fail.

In what’s otherwise a man’s world, Isobel McArthur delivers a heartfelt portrayal of an independent – yet somewhat lonely – woman who thinks she might, against all expectations, have found “the one”. The short straw, at least in terms of time on stage, is ably taken by Vincent Friell who provides some well-meaning foot-in-mouth support as F, M’s father, during what is surely one of the most unsuccessful dinner parties of all time.

Some critics have taken badly to F’s essential insistence that John must either be gay or straight, assuming that’s the position Bartlett himself holds; and, of course, John himself denies that he’s bisexual. LGBT rights have, of course, changed significantly in the UK since 2009 when Cock was first performed, but that doesn’t actually alter what seems to be the real point being made here: that, for John, relationships are not a matter of gender, but who they are. And, equally, who he is with them. A valid point, surely.

Reviews by Paul Fisher Cockburn

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Since you’re here…

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Performances

Location

The Blurb

“Why are you telling me I have to know what I am? It doesn’t matter. I love him because he makes me toast in bed and he’s scared of cling film. I love her because she makes me feel as old as I really am. She’s gentle.”

After his long-term gay relationship breaks down, John unexpectedly meets a woman with whom he discovers new pleasures and excitement. With the ex-boyfriend preening and strutting in the background, and his new girlfriend uncovering a whole different side to his personality, John is increasingly wracked with guilt and indecision about who he is and what he wants. When a civilised dinner party to discuss the way forward rapidly descends into a messy cockfight, John has to make a choice. What will he do?

Tron Theatre Company’s production of Mike Bartlett’s sharp and witty play will be the first UK staging since its Royal Court premiere six years ago.

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