Cock review: ‘physically impossible to stop watching’

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This may be the best play I have ever seen in Durham and it is named after male genitalia. So much more than just a sensationalist title, Cock portrays issues of sexuality, relationships and identity with such vivid intensity and startling comedy that it will haunt you long after you have left the Horsfall Room.

John, the only named character in the play, falls in love with a woman, referred to as W, two weeks into his break up with his boyfriend of seven years, M. Even after returning to M begging, he is torn between the two. John’s angst stems not solely from his sexuality, but he questions his very identity, his formation as a human being, and his future to follow. You won’t come out just questioning your sexuality, but the concept of sexuality itself.

From your entrance into the Horsfall Room you are situated uncomfortably within the action, straying in among the bright lights with the actors, already active on stage. You immediately feel an intruder, out of place, an unwanted observer on a private scene. Yet, like walking down an empty street in the evening, you are drawn to look in at the windows, at the private lives of other human beings.

This sense of proximity, this realism, is oddly enough enhanced by the complete lack of props or set. It was like stepping into someone else’s mind. The subtle shifts in lighting demonstrate a mastery from technical director Jon Salmon, of a small performance space, enhancing rather than detracting from the phenomenal acting unfolding on stage.

As a result of the lack of props and set, space became an artistic medium. The spatial direction of the actors was completely mesmerizing, in constant flux as they waned from one extreme to another of their relationships and personalities. The sex scenes, while family friendly in terms of costume, reached intimacy levels that burned the eyes of the audience just through slight steps towards each other, a dance, a hand touch.

Jenny Walser, the director, paints not just in spaces, but in silences. An intense, loud, emotionally brimming script, with a volatile tension and fraught angst that persists through every glance and word that passes between characters; the stage is in constant flux, in terms of movement as well as in tone and volume. Watching John mouth “forgive me” to M a metre away from your seat, and then enduring the pause that follows, is captivating in the way the shock factor of screaming obscenities cannot be.

Theo Harrison as F and Dannie Harris as W in 'Cock'
as F and Dannie Harris as W in ‘Cock’

The performances delivered by each and every character in combination with the small, simple acting space, rendered Cock incredibly powerful and moving. (M) was incredibly skilled at allowing the subtle comedic moments to shine through Bartlett’s script, even at times of knife-edge tension. His character could easily have been all anger and bitterness, but Sparkes put a human, and humorous, face on the role of jaded lover. He worked in amazing tandem with John, played by Theo Holt-Bailey, the struggling protagonist.

Holt-Bailey’s physical characterization of John was perfect. I have never seen anyone embody misery to the same extent as his he did in his performance at the final dinner party. From the rarer bursts of anger that seemed to corrosively convulse through his body, to his gentle placations of both his lovers, John was the character I wanted to dislike. I wanted to get up, walk the two steps between myself and him, and just shake an answer out of him. Yet, despite his lying, cheating behaviour and his agonizing silences, the moments of vulnerability and gentle beauty that shone through portrayed him as more than just weak, confused and wordless. At times, at his most vulnerable, at his most dumb, he was transfigured into the face of the voice perhaps we all have inside ourselves, that asks us desperately “Who am I?” and “What am I?”

Dannie Harris’s portrayal of W was feminine, empowered, and admirably fierce. She demanded your attention and support on stage. Her ‘other woman’ role, so typical, was complexly spell binding. The comic relief of F, , offered in his endearing, bumbling manner, was shaded by a darker train of slightly sleazier, slightly ignorant characteristics. These complexities Harrison brought so well to the role made F more than an excuse for Dad jokes, his speech and interjections embodying the views and flaws of the previous generation.

With a talented cast, disarming staging and gripping content, Cock was physically impossible to stop watching throughout. I cannot emphasize enough that Cock is worth going to see.

‘Cock’ will be performed until Mon 30 Nov in the Horsfall Room, St. Chad’s College. Book your tickets here

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