COCK Ambassadors Theatre, WC2

LOVE AS AN UNCOURTLY CONTEST 

 

  In 2009 – and again in Chichester 2018 – I missed Mike Bartlett’s mischievous, half-earnest play about a gay man wrestling with his identity (and his furious partner) after falling for a woman.  Who he loves both as a person and – to his confusion – as an anatomy.  Clever to revive it in this even more gender-anxious time:  Marianne Elliott directs with her familiar paciness (it’s 95 minutes), thre’s an artful moves-choreographer in Annie-Lunnette Deaken-Foster, and a double-revolving,mirror-lined space-age crescent of a set, with weird neon torpedoes overhead, created by Merle Hensel.  An avant-garde spectacle for a play about basic biology, if you like.

       The protagonist’s problem is obviously a good one to chew over in our age of self-involved identity angst, though it is fascinating to note that even 13 years ago the characters’ ideas were binary:  you were gay, straight or at a pinch bi. No LGBTQIZ+ then.  The cast are superb  (there are actually  4 of them, but no spoilers for the new generation: the final entrant is a snortingly funny shock).  Jonathan Bailey is the wavering lover,  a bearded man-child of unformed, anxious personality.   Taron Egerton, rare in the theatre but utterly at home,  gives the lover a lovely dry, sarky, controlled vulnerability with deadly timing always,  and the splendid Jade Anouka is the woman.

        Notably, only the central cock-owning protagonist gets a name – John – while his boyfriend is listed as M and the woman  W.  They are not ciphers by any means but the device  underlines – like the naively crass line“her vagina is amazing” – a sense the little scrote’s personality and tastes reside predominantly below the belt.   He is in fact choosing people,  but thinks he is choosing a sexuality.   The exercise of which with W is, by the way, marvellously evoked by a very distanced but definitely erotic – and funny – sequence making full use of the double revolve.  If you’ve ever felt your love affair is going round in circles… 

    The story evolves in flashback and forward through the progress of John’s dilemma, culminating in a ferocious, foodless  but horribly convincing fight over him.  In which the  pleasure and real pain is sharpened by the increasing evidence that John  is not worth the battle.  As his male lover accurately says early on:   “You’re a stream. I need a river”.  John barely grows at all, while  Egerton’s M evolves in stature and dignity as you watch. He is queenily bitchy, sweetly sad, older and more centred and real than John.  Anouka is too:  cleverly, her appeal is way beyond sexual to John as she talks of children, a long future, family Christmases: a chimera but an acknowledgement of old and basic longings  (note that gay marriage was still five years ahead in England, civil partnerships only four years old and rare.  Gay families for most were still a dream).

       It also becomes clear, to the amusement of women in the audience , that John’s problem is partly that M is, though loving,  sarky and critical by nature, while W is ” gentle” and makes John feel good about himself. Thunder and lightning, is that what women are for?   Buttering up unworthy and childish men?   Perhaps some naturally sarcastic gay men watched this in 2009 and preserved their relationships by thinking  “hmmm, yes, maybe he does need more ego-boosting, better do the adoring wife thing, the full Nancy Reagan gaze of admiration..”. 

     It’s a bracing evening, and will start much talk about gender fluidity, inner identity and moden free-floating sexualities. But face it, it is basically a play about the necessity of monogamy. If John had a spine, and an old fashioned manly morality,  he would have left M’s comfy flat and thought things  through alone for a bit longer, weighing where his love really lies.  It is the vacillating and torturing of both that is the deadly sin against love. Vaginas are the least of it, they really are…

box office  atgtickets.com   to 4 June

rating four 

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