Cottage offers a poignant interrogation of a forgotten part of gay history, but its equally bold and subtle performances deserved more time on stage than they were given.
‘Two’ (Stephen Ledger) and ‘One’ (Ben Willows, replacing Covid-struck Ben Lewis last-minute) almost burst into a set of two grimy toilets. They barely pretend to be there for any other reason than to partake in “cottaging” (‘the action of engaging in homosexual acts in a public toilet’). This is not as straightforward as it seems, though (“So what do we do now?”). The comedy at the opening of the play is really very good, and the audience could not stop laughing during the first ten or so minutes of the play. Rather than sticking to the absurd premise of “cottaging” and playing on the awkwardness of sex with a stranger, the play quickly delves into a deeper interrogation of shame and connection.
Ben Willows plays his nervous middle-aged, married English teacher with much energy and authenticity, and a fundamental sympathy for the flawed character shines through his performance. Stephen Ledger is able to exhibit a subtle and gradual softening of the otherwise stand-offish and detached ‘Two’, and he was satisfyingly bold in the more sexual parts of the play. Indeed, these parts are risqué enough to make the audience gasp. The actors’ quick dialogue at the opening of the play gets many laughs, but sometimes lacks genuine reaction to the other actor. This gets much better once they start opening up about their past, and the scene where ‘One’ gets ‘Two’ to speak like his wife in order to turn him on is truly heart-wrenching and absurd at the same time. The staging works well here, as the forward-facing toilets with a wall in between look almost like a confession booth. The lighting is smart here as well, as one of the actors is cast in a warmer light than the other to reflect their level of openness at that moment. When they’re not engaging with the set-pieces though, the actors’ movement on stage sometimes feels slightly messy and unintentional.
The audience quickly realises that the play is not really about sex. The play deals with many themes at the same time, the most interesting of which are internalised homophobia, genuine connection and shame. However, it felt like the play had been cut down significantly to meet DDF’s short run-time standard. It felt like the ‘genuine’ connection that was starting to form between ‘One’ and ‘Two’ (“Could you talk to me?”) was cut short to a point where I felt like we didn’t quite get there. The entrance of a female on-looker (played by Darcy de Winter) was energetic and surprisingly jarring, and she played the character daringly. However, the woman’s intrusion of this public-space-gone-intimate could have been more shocking if ‘One’ and ‘Two’ had been given more time to fully establish their connection. Additionally, whilst I have noted that all the actors’ performances were bold, I felt like a violent scene towards the end could have felt more dangerous if it had been more coordinated.
The play has incredibly interesting things to say about the gay history, and especially because the Durham stage so often fails to represent its diverse student body, I just wish this subtle play would have taken its time more. I should note that some seasoned audience members called it ‘the best thing they’ve seen in Durham’, but for me the forty-minute run-time limited the full impact Cottage could have had.
Image Credit: Sightline Theatre Company