Review: Cock

‘some of the finest acting in Durham’

While the title might cause a snigger, Battered Soul Theatre’s production of Mike Bartlett’s Cock provides much more than cheap laughs. Cock raises vital questions about sexuality: does it matter what our sexuality ‘is’, or should we view our relationships in terms of the individual, rather than through gender-based labels? I found Bartlett’s script a thought-provoking and sensitive exploration of these issues. Even more pleasing, the play did not feel as though it was trying to be provocative. This is no political speech trying to disguise itself as theatre; at its heart, there is an engaging story with relatable characters.

The four actors give sophisticated portrayals of their characters. Three of the cast are freshers, but their performances would not look amiss among a professional cast, let alone one made up of more experienced DST regulars. Owen Sparkes (M) shifted from furious, verging on malicious, to showing a touching vulnerability, while Theo Holt-Bailey (John) managed to portray John’s indecision in a touching rather than irritating way. Dannie Harris (W) added a touch of plain-speaking sass to the show. Theo Harrison (F), meanwhile, provided some welcome chirpiness as the father of John’s male partner.

Bartlett’s skillful characterisation was as evident as his ability to tell a good story. These characters are not stereotypes: rather than one-dimensional roles filled out with an artificial flaw, they feel like real people. We laughed, cringed and sympathised as we watched John deal with every situation in almost the worst possible way. Reflecting Bartlett’s central question – whether we need to label our sexuality – there something relatable in these characters that is independent of their sexual and gender identities. This is a story of a difficult relationship, the excitement of a new love interest, and the uneasiness of exploring and establishing an identity. The play is important for its portrayal of the LGBTQ community (still under-represented on stage), but is also interesting for many other reasons.

Battered Soul’s production stayed true to Bartlett’s stipulation that no props or set should be used. This placed the focus entirely on the actors, a pressure the cast dealt with adeptly. The intimate, almost claustrophobic space of St. Chad’s Horsfall Room (seating only 40) may sound like a risky location for a play that demands so much from its actors, but the space, with the audience seated in the round, was used perfectly. From two actors entwined in the centre to four spaced around the room, the variety in distance was impressive. Director Jenny Walser seems to have ensured every inch of the available space was used to its full potential. The very beginning established the intimate closeness between audience and actors: as we entered, the four actors were sitting in the centre facing away from each other. They then began to move around, interacting silently, as the audience looked on. Separate yet not at a distance, we were invited to look into their lives. I even catch one audience member trying to look over Harrison’s shoulder to read his sudoku!

The production was surprisingly tasteful: while there were many explicit (and undeniably hilarious) one-liners, the physical depiction of sexual relationships was simple and touching. As Harris, playing John’s female love interest, gasped in pleasure at his touch, the two actors were placed across the stage from each other. A simple move to holding hands, back to back, showed the peak of their sexual pleasure – a moving and effective portrayal of physical intimacy. While at times the erotic tension was somewhat hampered by the need to represent nudity through acts such as taking out earrings or removing shoes, this decision (which I believe is scripted by Bartlett, not adapted for the university setting) was understandable and the actors kept the atmosphere of the play taut throughout.

From witty one-liners that had the audience rolling in hysterics, to subtle humour that weaved across the play, to poignant and important questions about human identity, Cock delivered a lot more than the title suggests. Whether it’s to have a laugh, to mull over a question, or simply to see some of the finest acting in Durham, go and watch this production!

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