Jonathan Bailey & Taron Egerton in Cock – review

Celebrity casting maybe, good acting definitely


★★★

Production photo from Mike Bartlett's comedy Cock at the Ambassadors Theatre in London showing Taron Egerton and Jonathan Bailey. March 2022
Taron Egerton & Jonathan Bailey in Cock. Photo: Brinkhoff Moegenburg

Let me make clear from the start the ‘cock’ of the title does not refer to a penis, although there are quite a few references to penises in the play. So, no jokes about limp performances (there weren’t any), standing up at the end (they did) or Mike Bartlett’s Cock not being very long (it’s only 105 minutes).

The title alludes to a cock fight, because it’s about a love triangle in which two people are rivals for a third person’s love and he struggles to choose between them. It’s a play about an ostensibly gay couple one of whom finds himself attracted to a woman, and, although interesting questions are asked about how we define people’s sexuality, it’s primarily a comedy.

And since you ask, although sex is referred to regularly throughout the play, and it is quite erotic at times, the actors keep their clothes on and use stylised movements to indicate physical activity. I’m pretty sure no intimacy advisor was needed.

There are two star names in this play. So, let me start with their performances, and say that both earn their place on the stage, not because they’re celebrities but because they’re damn good actors.

Taron Egerton is best known for his performances in the films Rocketman and Kingsman, but he is RADA trained and has appeared at the National Theatre. Here he is the unnamed M (for Man, get it?). He gives a nuanced performance as what appears to be the dominant lover in a long term relationship. He plays to perfection this swaggering character who hides, in a very masculine way, his need for love. Mr Egerton has a wonderful ability to switch from a jaw jutting bully to soft and red-eyed with tears, and he delivers lines of waspish humour with a lashing tongue.

Jonathan Bailey is one of the many ridiculously attractive people from Bridgerton and destined to become the central character in the second series. He too has a good track record in theatre, including an Olivier Award. He plays M’s partner, the only character given a name, not that ‘John’ is much of an ID. His character is painfully indecisive. Mr Bailey provides many enjoyable moments of comedy, as he grimaces with his face and contorts his body in a child-like way, whilst avoiding making his mind up. If anything, there is just a little too much goofiness. We know he is suffering because there are moments outside of the action when he is alone and bathed in harsh light screaming silently, but in his interaction with the other characters, he doesn’t show quite enough of this angst.

Both are physically right for the parts, Mr Bailey thin and gangly, Mr Egerton stocky and muscular. Not quite Laurel and Hardy, but it would hard to imagine either playing the other role.

An impressive production

What you notice when you enter the auditorium is Merle Hensel’s impressive set. It’s chrome or some similar polished metal curved around the sides and back of the stage. There’s no escaping it. There are no distracting props and the one way in and out is a concealed revolving door. All that happens is reflected back on itself, conveying the way these characters are trapped in their relationships and unable to see beyond them. There are some hanging fluorescent strips which come down from time to time and these along with other lighting changes from dark to brilliantly bright, orchestrated by Paule Constable, match and enhance the mood changes.

First, we meet M and John. They’re relaxed in each other’s company. There’s a lot of affection. There’s also a lot of sniping and bickering, but anyone who’s been in a long term relationship will recognise how natural this is, because it is easy to get into negative ways of behaving.

However, there is a problem with this relationship. The cliché of a seven year itch perhaps. John has had sex with someone else. Shockingly for both of them, given that M is gay and until now John has thought of himself as gay, the other person is a woman. M’s dominating character and the way he resorts to unpleasantness hint at why John might have been tempted to stray. It has to be said that, while the insults may hurt John, they are funny for us to hear, for example when he launches into a string of offensive terms for someone who is attracted to women.

The cast of Cock. Photo: Brinkhoff Moegenburg

In the second act, we see how this other relationship began and developed. Jade Anouka (you may recognise her from His Dark Materials) is excellent as the woman with whom John has an affair and falls in love. Her character is called W (for woman). There isn’t so much potential for comedy in this part, but Ms Anouka exudes the love and need for love of her character. John shows nervousness but clear attraction, and there’s a gentleness and respect between them that wasn’t apparent in John’s relationship with M. But of course he is still attracted to M, and Mr Bailey is at his comic best when he is confused about what he wants, beyond wanting to please everybody. It is his indecisiveness that enables his lovers to mould him into what they need.

Stylised movement is moving

This is a good point to mention the way they first make love. As I said earlier, there is next to no physical intimacy beyond a kiss or a hug. They keep their clothes on. You’ll also remember I said the set is bare of any props. Throughout the play, body movement expresses thoughts and feelings without resorting to obvious mime. So much of the physical action is left to your imagination.  For example, a whole meal is served in the third act without any sign of a table a bowl or cutlery.

Going back to this first encounter between John and W, they indicate through the dialogue what they are doing, while staying physically separate on stage. She wants to see his naked body. He moves his hands to indicate the shedding of clothes without literally miming taking off each item.  Similarly, they describe him exploring her vagina but what we see, from memory, is him touching his leg and her using her body to express the excitement she is feeling inside. This exploration of each other’s bodies is highly erotic, proving perhaps that the best sex is in the brain. I congratulate director Marianne Elliott is for utilising this remarkably effective element, and the movement director Annie-Lunnette Deakin-Foster for making it work so well.

This and the set and the lighting could only happen in a theatre and all contribute to a complete experience that enhances what’s said. Talking of which, Mike Bartlett has an excellent ear for dialogue- just the exchanges you would expect both from a long term relationship and a first meeting.

If I have a criticism of the production, it’s that it looks too good. It’s so stylish with its cold encompassing metal and its stylised movement that it takes away some of the raw feeling from these relationships.

The third act is the cock fight. M invites W to join him and John for dinner. It feels contrived but gives us the showdown we want. M brings along his father for good measure. He’s called F (of course) and is played by Phil Daniels, in a performance that shows a parent’s blinkered affection – he wants his son to be happy- and gives us insight into the limitations of both liberal tolerance and a view that defines people by their sexuality and gender.

M and W each think John has chosen them and is going to take the opportunity to reject the other. As the evening progresses, there’s verbal sparring, and increasingly desperate emotion as it becomes clear how much each of them needs John. He meanwhile continues to be pulled one way and another both by his feelings and by what box he should tick, with the possibility that it’s all ‘cock’, as in cock and bull.

Cock is funny a lot of the time, it lectures some of the time, and it’s not as deep as I suspect it thinks it is, but as a look at the way hearts break the rules set by our brains, it’s full of insight, especially in the hands of its starry cast.

Cock is running at the Ambassadors Theatre in London until 4 June 2022

Paul received a press ticket from the producer

Watch the review of Cock on YouTube

 

This House – NTLive – review

Film fails to convey thrill of live theatre

★★★

Production shot of Phil Daniels in the National Theatre production of This House
Phil Daniels in This House. Photo: Johan Persson

I’ve watched quite a few recordings of theatre shows since the Lockdown and the more I see the less sure I am that that they’re a good advertisement for theatre. By which I mean, what works on stage often doesn’t work on film.

At the heart of live performance, there’s a conspiracy between audience and actor. We all know we’re watching someone acting out a story. So we accept the artificiality, the theatricality if you like. That unnaturalness is exposed when we are forced to stand back from it and view it through the medium of film. So when the actors in This House race up and down the stage, it looks exciting in the flesh but on screen it just looks a bit silly. When actors speak loudly on stage, it’s riveting, on screen it’s a bit shouty.

Films and television dramas are more artificial than theatre but they do everything they can to make it seem like it’s real- the photographically detailed set, the convincing makeup and so on.

What we want in theatre is simply to watch those actors telling us that story with their words and actions. Film wants to show us flashbacks and dreams. It has to provide something to keep the eye interested: you can’t have a detective go question somebody without that person carrying on with their gardening or car repair.

Prodcution shot from the National Theatre production of This house by James Graham
Photo: Johan Persson

We theatregoers want to use our imagination, just as we did when our parents or teacher told us a story as a child. We conjure up images of, as Shakespeare said, ‘the cloud-capp’d tow’rs, the gorgeous palaces’- not to mention pitched battles and shipwrecks. We don’t need imagination for film and TV drama because they do it for us. In This House, as the Labour Whips desperately try to get MPs back to give them the votes they need, a silhouette of a helicopter appears at the back of the stage, to great comic effect. That’s all we need. In a film, we would expect a real chopper.

Theatre is on a human scale (with the odd exception where the director insists that the production will be better for using video screens). We may like the odd spectacle but only because we can really appreciate a barricade built on a stage in front of our eyes. Generally, we like engaging with people who are not small and removed from us on a TV screen or larger than life in the cinema but people who are the same size as us, alive in front of us. For that reason,  recorded theatre works best when following one character close up, like Fleabag or Sea Wall, or a small scale play dominated by one person like Cyprus Avenue.

Thrilling production from Jeremy Herrin and Rae Smith

When watching a live performance, our brains and eyes are remarkably good at seeing detail, even from a distance. On TV, we either view the whole set and miss the detail or the camera hones in on our behalf and creates its notion of what we should see. In theatre, we may be nudged by the script or the direction but we still make the choice to look at the person talking or the one listening or a detail of the set. Rae Smith’s set for This House is brilliant. She uses a traverse stage with green seats on either side creating both the sense of gladiatorial combat and the close intimacy of parliamentary politics. Not so great when you’re not one of the people sitting on one side looking at the other side.

So, no, I didn’t think the NTLive recording conveyed the quality of This House. It’s a superb piece of theatre deserving four or even five stars, reduced to maybe three at the most. What saves it is the wonderful script by James Graham and the great way it’s acted.

This House tells the story of the time in the 1970s when the Labour government was hanging on with small or nonexistent majorities. The play may be about politics which you might think boring but it is actually thrilling as the Labour whips tried to find the MPs’ votes to keep the government going and the Conservative whips tried to bring it down. And it’s funny,  as when they drag in a dying member to vote.

Production photo of Charles Edwards in the National Theatre production of This House
Charles Edwards in This House. Photo: Johan Persson

It’s also a very good explanation of how parliament works- and sometimes doesn’t work- and an advertisement for respect and compromise at a time when extreme positions are in danger of bringing down democracy.

Among many fine performances in Jeremy Herrin’s production at the National Theatre, I would pick out Charles Edwards and Reece Dinsdale as the ruthless but mutually respectful deputy whips, Phil Daniels as the conspiratorial cockney Chief Whip and Lauren O’Neill as the newcomer who grows in confidence and stature as the years go by.

I would definitely advise you to give it a watch, despite all my caveats, but I am glad I originally saw This House live on stage.

This House is streaming on the YouTube channel National Theatre At Home until 3 June 2020.

Click here to watch the review of This House on YouTube

A Very Very Very Dark Matter starring Jim Broadbent – Bridge Theatre

Jim Broadbent excels in Martin Mcdonagh’s latest black comedy 

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Production shot of Jim Broadbent in Martin McDonagh's A Very Very Very Dark Matter at Bridge Theatre London
Jim Broadbent in Martin McDonagh’s A Very Very Very Dark Matter

A Very Very Very Dark Matter, Martin McDonagh‘s latest black comedy, is very very very dark and also very very very funny.

The lead character is the Danish fairy tale author Hans Christian Andersen is portrayed as an egocentric idiot. It is clear from the start that the true writer of his terrifying tales is a woman from the Congo whom he keeps in a cage and calls Marjory.

Click here to watch the YouTube review

Hans loves the public’s adulation but at a public reading of The Little Mermaid he can’t even pronounce the word ‘ether’. Behind the perfect avuncular face is a very unpleasant man totally lacking in self awareness. Jim Broadbent gives us a comic tour de force.

Production photo of Johnetta Eula’Mae Ackles in A Very Very Very Dark Matter at Bridge Theatre London
Johnetta Eula’Mae Ackles in A Very Very Very Dark Matter

Marjory is far more intelligent, erudite and sensitive than him. Johnetta Eula’Mae Ackles, making her professional theatre debut, has a quiet authority that complements Jim Broadbent’s jolly but insecure sadist. She has travelled back in time in an effort to prevent a massacre in which the Belgian colonialists murdered 10 million of her people.

A macabre, bizarre, exhilarating ride

She has seen humanity’s heart of darkness (which incidentally is what Joseph Conrad called his novel about colonialists in the Congo) and it comes out in her fairy tales. Hans wishes she could provide happier endings but doesn’t interfere, except to censor her title The Little Black Mermaid which to him is an oxymoron.

At least one theme of the play is nineteenth century Europeans’ attitude to their colonies, which they saw as resources to be exploited to enrich the West. The title A Very Very Very Dark Matter may not only refer to the dark content of the play but also to dark matter itself which scientists believe makes up 80% of the universe but is invisible even though the 20% we can see can’t exist without it, in the way that the third world’s resources made the western world’s success possible.

Hans, as what he calls her ‘looky aftery’ person, represents European exploiters of the colonies. He has no concept of his cruelty, even though he has cut off one of her feet!  Even his efforts to be kind or provide an upbeat ending are naïve at best, ignorant at worst.

A Jeeves & Wooster for our times

Together Marjorie and Hans are a Jeeves and Wooster for our times. And this pair are as funny as Wodehouse’s servant and master, albeit less actual fun, given our modern awareness of the evil way in which human beings have behaved toward each other.

There are many hilarious moments, perhaps the best of which is when Hans visits Charles Dickens or Charles Darwin as he insists on calling him. He suspects that Dickens too has a ghost writer from the Congo. Andersen can’t comprehend even the most explicit insults directed at him- and the language is both modern and coarse (‘You’re shitting me’ is one of the milder phrases).

Phil Daniels, Elizabeth Berrington & Jim Broadbent in A Very Very Very Dark Matter
Phil Daniels, Elizabeth Berrington & Jim Broadbent in A Very Very Very Dark Matter

Mr and Mrs Dickens, wonderfully played by Phil Daniels and Elizabeth Berrington, exhibit a shocking but significant contempt for their children- they don’t even know their names- and there’s even time for a joke about a skeleton that is both metaphorically and literally in a cupboard.

Anna Fleischle’s set is a superb attic full of dark corners and hanging puppets, very like a scene from one of Andersen’s sinister fairy tales.

If there is a fault, it’s that A Very Very Very Dark Matter is a bit light on plot. I would have liked to have been more excited about the fate of Marjory and about whether Hans learns from his experience. Or simply a few more twists. Otherwise I can’t praise the comedy or Matthew Dunster‘s production enough

A Very Very Very Dark Matter can be seen at Bridge Theatre until 6 January 2019

Watch below for the review of A Very Very Very Dark Matter the YouTube channel One Minute Theatre Reviews

Some minor amendments made on 28 October 2018- paragraphs 6 and 7 swapped and subheading added.