Cock review – A bitterly amusing commentary on the reductive nature of labelling

Falling in love with a woman completely upends the lives of John (Jonathan Bailey) and long-term boyfriend M (Taron Egerton) in Mike Bartlett’s Cock



“What’s in a name?” Shakespeare once asked. Truthfully, everything. While naming something doesn’t fundamentally alter the object or sensation itself, humans have used language for centuries to compartmentalise and categorise in order to aid understanding. How do we understand each other if not for shared vocabulary of things? Of course, a wardrobe is still a wardrobe regardless of whether it is called an armoire or armario, but humans have nevertheless found it fruitful for joint understanding to put a name to the many elements of the human experience. Words are the linchpin of communication and the power of putting a name to something cannot be underestimated.

This is all very convenient, of course, for objects or things which can be objectively identified. But it’s the grey spaces where this labelling falls down. While facets of humanity can be reduced down to mere words, like “tall” or “short” or “blonde” or “brunette”, it is impossible to encapsulate the essence of an entire life down to just a singular word. It is the epitome of reductive. Unlike wardrobes, or tables, or chairs, which share a common set of features, the human race possesses so many glorious, unique differences that one cannot hope to perfectly describe every individual experience with just one word.

Nevertheless, humans are categorised. Psychologically, humans are designed to seek an in-group and, consequently, identify an out-group. On what criteria that is forged, whether by race, geographical location, sex, gender or otherwise, giving a language and vocabulary helps to group humans on the basis of broad, generally physical characteristics. Where this principle falls down is upon things which cannot be observably measured. Categorising and labelling humans on the basis of sexuality is one such example and, though the existence of many sexualities beyond the simple binary of “gay” and “straight” have been legitimised since Mike Bartlett wrote his 2009 play “Cock”, the reductive principles that he rallies against here are nonetheless incredibly true.

“Cock” tells the story of John (Jonathan Bailey) who, truthfully, is a bit of a knob, but undergoes somewhat of an existential crisis when, having recently broken up with his boyfriend M (Joel Harper-Jackson), finds himself falling for a woman, W (Jade Anouka). The story is told through flashforwards and flashbacks, first detailing John’s relationship with M and the conversations they share, to then the development of John and W’s relationship until all the characters meet for a tense dinner party in which the “cock fight” for John commences.

Throughout, the dialogue is realistic and incredibly witty. Despite the subject matter and commentary on the elusiveness of labelling sexuality, the interactions between the characters are consistently hilarious. The acerbic, bitter and fractious dynamic between John and M, with Harper-Jackson dramatically flouncing across the stage with brittle delivery that betrays a profound sadness underneath, is deliciously undercut by the warm, sensuous and caring safe space cultivated by W.

There is a sense through Bailey’s portrayal of just how much that John is defined by the people that surround him, and by what they think of him – unable to craft an identity or personality of his own, hemmed in and weighed down by what others are expecting of him. He shares terrific chemistry both with Harper-Jackson and with Jessica Whitehurst, who was performing as W on this particular performance.

The minimalism of the set (designed by Merle Hensel), with the use of industrial-looking lighting fixtures (lighting design by Paule Constable) features a rotating state, which merely serves to emphasise the separation and togetherness of particular characters. The reflective walls challenges the audience to properly analyse the words and actions of these characters.

This is nicely contrasted with moments of brazen theatricality, using contemporary movement and miming of actions and props that almost abstract the events of this show to make it something deeper and more relevant for all audiences, instead of merely being about these particular characters. One particularly amusing moment involves the most intimate scene on stage where two characters are, in fact, nowhere near each other, as John and W engage in sex for the first time, spinning away from each other on separate revolves, using all manner of bodily movements other than the traditionally erotic ones. Yet, the scene still manages to foster a deep connection between the two characters, while proving hilarious in equal measure.

Labelling of sexuality has come some ways since 2009, with far more than just “gay” or “straight” and, occasionally, “bisexual” (a derided suggestion within the context of the show), but it doesn’t make John’s quandary any less resonant. Feeling the need to identify “what” he is, in contrast to “who” he is, and finding himself hemmed in and constrained by the words that are used to describe him and his feelings is massively impactful. Sexuality is far from fixed. As transient as ever-changing as the tides, all humans change and evolve and develop over the course of their lives. With commanding performances and insightful writing, “Cock” is as relatable now as it was more than a decade ago.

Cock is playing at the Ambassadors Theatre, London until 4 June. Tickets can be booked here.

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