By Zara Stokes Neustadt
In this updated iteration of Cottage, a Durham Drama Festival original from Ben Willows, an agreement of ‘just sex’ effortlessly metamorphosises into an exploration of human connection at the play’s heart. Directed by Maddie Hurley and produced by Ellen Olley, this feat of darkly comic drama guides an audience – likely unacquainted with the intricacies of cottaging – through its emotional strings, permitting a precise glimpse into the social perception of queerness: an achievement considering the production exists outside of a specific time period. Using timelessness in this way breaks down the commonly opaque facet of dating a difficult subject in an intangible past; the relevance of gay culture and the focus on individual nuance is demanded by Cottage.
Notably, a minimalistic set of two toilets stalls and discarded paper cements the location as unloved but uncompromisingly intimate – the public becoming private in the emphasis put onto the two men. Assisted by selective lighting changes, the world of the piece blurs to bestow focus on glimpses of true relation and revelation. Consequently, the influence of Georgia Malkin as Stage Manager and Set Designer (not to mention Assistant Director as well) manifests with effective attention to detail; elevating the immersive atmosphere as well as the ability of each actor to establish themselves within the clear setting.
Ben Lewis as ‘One’ captivates from the first scene. The immediate presentation of one pensively desperate and terrified shines in his wordless introduction to the stage; at once setting a high standard for physical and emotional embodiment. Lines which could be overplayed for comedy, characterisation which could play as bumbling in the transformation of Lewis into a middle-aged teacher are communicated with unconscious hilarity and empathy.
Similarly, Stephen Ledger as ‘Two’ owns a sense of suavity and sexual bravado in the primary section of the play, forming a pleasing counterpoint to the rigidity of ‘One’. It is however his later moments of rawness and tenderness which I feel capture Ledger’s skill more comprehensively – a particular highlight being the second foot tap of the play. Here, his gentle physicality and Hurley’s direction reach a wonderful interplay to twist sexual desire into an expression of reassurance, of being wanted, that is so craved by both men.
Undeniably, the chemistry of ‘One’ and ‘Two’ is a testament to the efforts of both director and actors – specifically, the transition of touch from reluctant and discordant between the two (or humorously overt, with Ledger’s bending over the toilet coming to mind) to synced in a gloriously developed sequence of the second (almost) kiss. Though monologue provides exposition for each character, similarly constituting a deepening of the relationship, the often-downturned faces of the actors can obscure the audience’s connection with the action, and engagement wavers at points in the slow unfurling of the heavily paused speeches. That is not to say that Lewis or Ledger broadcast any less emotional nuance in these moments, however the piece is rendered more vulnerable to dips in energy due to the combination of frequent moments of quiet with naturalistic lighting and set.
Regarding nuance of character, Darcy de Winter’s ‘Three’ explodes on stage with vocal playfulness and sharp, reactive delivery: a pleasure to witness, and an admirably committed inhabitation of such an extreme character. However, some instances of sudden shouting – while skilfully convincing and shocking – appear slightly incongruous with the action. In spite of this, the difficult and occasionally vague character is tackled in a considered way that commands full attention of the space.
Ultimately, the tight ensemble of three perform masterfully to complement and contradict each other, underscoring Willows’s and Hurley’s exploration of sex and connection. Over the hour-long piece, an arc is sustained and fulfilled in a manner both satisfying and heart-breaking, as, in perhaps the most poignant crux of the piece, the first two numbered characters become named – becoming viscerally real. By coaxing tragedy from the more surface level instances of genuine comic prowess, each component member of Cottage’s creation displays vital commitment to detail and development, culminating in a piece nothing short of professional.
Tickets for Cottage’s Edinburgh Fringe run are available here.
Image: Ben Willows