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Theatre Review: Jonathan Bailey rises to the occasion

Reasonably daring when first performed in 2009, Mike Bartlett's Cock now feels all mouth and no trousers

Taron Egerton, left, and Jonathan Bailey in Cock (Photo: Brinkhoff-Moegenburg)

Cock
Ambassadors Theatre, London, until June 4

A play that’s called Cock clearly wants to make something of a statement and get itself talked about. It feels more like a concept, a marketing proposition, an idea you’d expect to come out of a brainstorming session at an ad agency like Saatchi rather than the head of a playwright.

In the event, it feels like mis-selling, because the first thing to be said about Cock is there is no cock in it.

Anyone going along expecting cock – and, I kid you not, I saw some punters heading in with binoculars, just as they did when Daniel Radcliffe stripped naked in Equus – is going to be bitterly disappointed. Mike Bartlett’s play is also really an old cock – it was first performed in 2009 – and, while it might have seemed at least reasonably daring then, it now feels all mouth and no trousers.

It starts off conventionally enough along the lines of Nick Payne’s play Constellations with what appear to be two gay guys – Jonathan Bailey and Taron Egerton – acting out all the travails common to any relationship on a strange minimalist steel-plated set designed by Merle Hensel. The first flush of sexual excitement, the first row, realising they have nothing in common and then the break-up.

There’s nothing especially striking about the writing – it’s uneasily pitched at a point midway between drawing-room comedy and kitchen-sink drama – and it relies much too heavily at the start on the punters getting excited about the fact that it’s about two guys rather than a straight couple, which strikes me as passé, if not also patronising.

Happily, Bailey is a very fine actor who can invest even the most banal lines with meaning. He has a uniquely expressive face and a grace and elegance on the stage that make him compelling company in just about anything.

Perversely, given the title, there seems to be a squeamishness about having any flesh at all on display: even when Bailey’s character asks Egerton’s to remove his shirt, it is left to the imagination.

Flirtation, sex, anger and happiness are all played out in complicated little dance routines between the two principals devised by the movement director Annie-Lunnette Deakin-Foster.


Marianne Elliott’s production finally gets more interesting when Bailey’s character announces to his boyfriend he has become romantically involved with a woman (Jade Anouka) and the three of them get together for a toe-curlingly awkward dinner that gets even more toe-curlingly awkward when
Phil Daniels – playing Egerton’s father – shows up.

This comedy of embarrassment makes Abigail’s Party feel like a convivial Rotary Club tea dance, and Bailey is especially moving when he makes the point that words like gay, bisexual and straight all come from the 1960s and they make individuals like him – forced to somehow define himself against a range of desires – feel constricted, if not imprisoned.

It’s a strong ensemble – all the actors are on great form – but the piece is very much written around Bailey. He rises to the occasion admirably.

Bartlett’s work may not be as clever and cutting-edge as it appears to think it is – I’d say the 1971 film Sunday Bloody Sunday was a much more serious examination of bisexual relationships – but, if it encourages people to give the musicals a break just for a few hours and come in to see Bailey acting his socks off, if not his pants, then I am all for it.

I suppose the message of the play is that, all things considered, life would be a lot less of an ordeal for a lot of men – and the women, and, where applicable, other men in their lives – if only they had never been burdened with the appendage of the title in the first place.

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