Review – Cock, Royal Court

Thursday 3 December 2009

Things weren’t looking good as the Whingers entered the Royal Court‘s upstairs auditorium. The Court was very much in officiousness overdrive up there.

It’s all so very, very strict. Greeted by a humourless usher who makes an airport security official look like Pollyanna, instructions come thick and fast: you may take one small bag in if you rest it on your lap; “double check your phone is off” (a good thing, granted); only bottled water is allowed. Yes water! No wine, how on earth were the Whingers going to last one and three quarter hours without sustenance?

Yes, there are many hoops to be jumped through if you wish to see Mike Bartlett‘s Cock.

There, yes, we couldn’t resist an entendre. We thought about defeating expectations by not acknowledging it but temptation proved irresistible, not least (surprisingly) to Andrew who spent most of last week phoning the Royal Court box office and adopting a range of voices to enquire, “Could you tell me how long Mike Bartlett’s Cock is?” before hanging up in fits of giggles. No doubt the Court is still laughing about it now.

The main hoop, of course, is that it is now sold out.

Anyway. Mike Bartlett’s Cock is a four-hander. There are three characters called M, W and F (presumably for man, woman and father). Only Bright Star star Ben Whishaw‘s character has a name and he’s playfully called John (though no doubt the writer toyed with Willy, Bob or Thomas).

M (Andrew Scott, left with Whishaw) and John are partners but when John meets W (IT Crowds Katherine Parkinson), sleeps with her and falls for her he is wracked with indecision about who he really wants to be with.

There is no set and the audience is compelled to sit on ugly uncomfortable plywood benches, mini-arena style (no backrests except for those in the back row) around the acting space. There is no furniture nor are there any props. There isn’t even any miming of props (propery?): if someone passes the wine you don’t see it. Phil sees this as a whizzo ruse the next time Andrew asks him to pass him the bottle.

James MacDonald‘s production almost convinced the Whingers that theatre in the round can work. We say almost, the director keeps the actors moving around so you can see their faces but there are still times you want to see everything. But we’re not complaining about seeing the intensity of the actors up so close. This is probably as good as it gets for this form of staging which is praise indeed.

The lighting is ghastly (deliberately. Thanks Peter Mumford): lit with fluorescent tubes from above it’s horribly even and spills onto the audience so you’re always aware of people sitting across the stage and despite the looking to see if they’re laughing as much as you are or wondering how they managed to get such a huge handbag past the Royal Court goons.

All of which is just getting the niggling out of the way before announcing that Mike Bartlett’s Cock is fantastic: one of the best things we have seen this year. Right up there with Jerusalem. Despite the Mark Ravenhill-style provocative title and the gimmickry the play is surprisingly conventional. Bartlett has a wonderful turn of phrase (John apparently wears “a halo of disorganisation” and is “like a picture drawn in pencil and not coloured in”). Sometimes it’s incredibly funny (such as W expressing her arousal: “I’ve got a gap-on”) and it is utterly gripping and very moving.

Bartlett’s writing is given everything it deserves by the excellent cast. Parkinson (right, who apparently studied at the Tiffin Girls’ School) is tantalisingly inscrutable and Whishaw is both depressingly skinny (Andrew estimates a 26 inch waist) and frustratingly endearing. The Whingers now wish they’d seen Whishaw’s highly praised Danish prince, his convincing but maddening indecisiveness must have been honed in that part, but here his John makes Hamlet look like Margaret Thatcher.

But it is Scott who especially took the Whingers’ breaths away with a performance which was both heart-rending and magnificently humorous, not least in the unbearably embarrassing dinner for the love triangle players plus M’s father (Paul Jesson, also excellent) although Phil was at times put in mind of Graham Norton what with the Irish delivery and all.

And what’s more amazing than any of this, it made the Whingers think. And talk. About the play. Bartlett’s writing has enough ambiguity in it to create some doubts as to what you’ve just seen. Andrew read W and M as controlling and of John complicit in that. Phil hadn’t initially been convinced by the subject of the play. He’d always thought male bisexuality was having your cock and eating it. But he saw Cock as a metaphor for relationships in general. You want a bit of this person a little bit of that person and underlying all this is a message that nobody is perfect for another, perfect relationships can’t exist and that we can never really be completely satisfied. Very bleak.

Did we mention how much we admired Mike Bartlett’s Cock? Andrew is seriously considering cancelling his super dooper priority membership at the National Theatre becoming a friend of the Royal Court instead.

Cock is sold out for the entire run – yet another hit for the Royal Court. It would be tricky to transfer in its present form but it definitely deserves a longer run. This is one Cock that needs extending.

With Ben Whishaw

14 Responses to “Review – Cock, Royal Court”

  1. webcowgirl Says:

    Just brilliant – most intense play of the year and I think it’s going to get my nod for best of 2009. Lovely chatting with you guys afterwards, too. I mean, really, the whole thing justified the entire theatrical enterprise.

  2. Samuel Coote Says:

    While I would warmly encourage Andrew to consider becoming a Friend of the Royal Court in addition to his other memberships, please allow me say that we would be very sorry to lose him as a Priority Member at the National Theatre. Andrew’s support, in common with that of all our fantastic Priority Members, makes a huge difference to the work that goes on here at the NT.

    Needless to say that I and my colleagues were thrilled and delighted to read your kind description of National Theatre Priority Membership as “super dooper” and wish you many more memorable theatregoing experiences both at the National Theatre and beyond.

    With warm regards

    Samuel Coote
    Membership and Campaigns Manager
    National Theatre


    • Thank you, Samuel. It’s nice to know that our patronage is appreciated. I suppose it’s not surprising given the amount of money we’ve handed to the National over the years. Ah, when I think of all the plays we’ve seen half of over the years….

      Thing is (and I know it’s not your fault) the National has gone off the boil a bit. I can’t think of the last thing we came out really raving about something. Pitmen Painters first time round? Saint Joan?

      And the Royal Court has delivered two this year. It is hot, hot, hot. What can I say?

      • Ian Shuttleworth Says:

        Pitmen Painters *first* time round was in Newcastle.

        Not just pedantry: that’s why, for instance, it didn’t win any Critics’ Circle awards – hardly any voters saw it in Newcastle when it opened, and the London run wasn’t eligible because it wasn’t a premiere. The rules have now been changed.


  3. Apologies readers. It was my job to report back in this post about the 20% discount scandal previously reported here.

    Good news: the 20% off all drinks offer is displayed for everyone to see in chalk on a big blackboard. My god we got hammered.

    But a note of caution: we did twice have to remind bar staff to apply the discount.

  4. ms.marple investigates Says:

    One thing of concern – did you pay for Cock? I have never payed to see Cock in my life, and worry that this may start a disturbing precedent…

  5. Abragante Says:

    Sory, me old cocks, but I didn’t understand this bit. Is there a line missing?

  6. Abragante Says:

    Apologies. This is the phrase from your review I didn’t understand.

    …not least in the Andrew Scott turns into the unbearably embarrassing dinner for the love triangle and M’s father (Paul Jesson, also excellent)…

    Is there a missing line or phrase which would make all clear?

  7. Rev Stan Says:

    Just got back from seeing Cock a second time (bit of a Whishaw fan, you see), it was a great play and definitely up there among my top plays of the year. Shame it has only a short run and it certainly doesn’t lend itself to a transfer. I believe an extension (sorry) is out of the question as Mr Whishaw has duties on Broadway calling for the new year.
    Jealous you got your picture taken with the man himself – I was too shy to even ask a question at the Q&A. Just let Rufus Wainwright do all the talking instead.


  8. @ Aragante. Apologies. Sub-editor has now been fired. Hope you are happy. Sentence corrected: But it is Scott who especially took the Whingers’ breaths away with a performance which was both heart-rending and magnificently humorous, not least in thebunbearably embarrassing dinner for the love triangle players plus M’s father ( Paul Jesson, also excellent) although Phil was at times put in mind of Graham Norton what with the Irish delivery and all.

    @Rev Stan/Kajagoogoo: Too shy? We can heartily endorse the power of Dutch courage.

    • Abragante Says:

      Thank you for clearing that up. Great review, though. You’re just about alone among critics in conveying to us what a production actually looks like. I sometimes wonder why the “official” critics don’t just stay at home and read the text.

  9. Gareth Says:

    It’s nice to read another overwhelmingly positive review for this play – i thought all the three stars it initially received from all the Proper Critics were a little on the mean side.

    Whingers, have any of your ailments miraculously cleared up since you met Ben Whishaw? How’s the leprosy doing? I’m of the believe that he’s the son of God. Even if i did pick the seat that led to him referring to me as ‘the fake dog’ in the play.

  10. gambitpublish Says:

    Wish I could’ve seen it.


  11. […] had already seen Posh a couple of years back so that is disqualified too. Mike Bartlett’s Cock stood proudly against Jerusalem a couple of years ago yet lost out to it in the end; his triple […]


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