Review: Cock – Tron Theatre, Glasgow

Standard

First published in The Times, Saturday February 13 2016

Three Stars

When Mike Bartlett’s 2009 comedy drama received its first production in New York in 2012, newspaper reviewers and advertisers primly rechristened it The Cockfight Play. Glasgow’s Tron, which is producing the Scottish premiere, seems similarly conflicted about the play’s original title. While the poster depicts a pair of fowls knocking the feathers off each other, the theatre is promoting the show on social media using the hashtag #NotAboutChickens.

Those seeking an evening of cheap thrills are advised to leave their expectations in the theatre’s foyer. Although the characters in Bartlett’s play talk frankly about sex and sexuality throughout, the playwright is less interested in what his protagonist, John (James Anthony Pearson), does with his genitals than with the confusion and indecision whirling in his head. Indeed, in the play’s only actual sex scene, two fully clothed actors, standing side by side, achieve mutual orgasm through the power of words alone.

 

In its depiction of a young man torn between his male partner (Johnny McKnight) and the woman he encounters during his daily commute (Isobel McArthur), Bartlett’s play attempts to wrestle with one of the intriguing ironies of our progressive age. Social attitudes towards LGBT people may have progressed dramatically, yet there remains a certain intractable suspicion about those who refuse to clearly and easily define themselves.

Isobel McArthur and James Anthony Pearson (2), Cock, Tron Theatre Company, credit John Johnston-2

Pic: John Johnston

For John, the consequence of such prevarication is helpless inertia while those around him try to coax, cajole or bully him into their corner. Tensions boil over during what McKnight’s character only half-jokingly describes as “the ultimate bitch fight”, an excruciating dinner party, with all the principals in attendance, including John’s father-in-law (Vincent Friell), the self-appointed referee, who repeatedly warns him: “You need to decide who you are.”

James Anthony Pearson, Cock, Tron Theatre Comapny, credit John Johnston

Pic: John Johnston

Andy Arnold’s production, staged in a square of light with no scenery or props, places exceptional emphasis on Bartlett’s dense, frequently funny, script. There are lines and insightful moments to savour from a dynamic cast. Yet this stripped-down approach also exposes the play’s weaknesses. The big hole at the centre is John himself. While Pearson tries hard to make his character endearing, he ultimately comes across as vague and solipsistic.

 

The resulting effect is a gradual shift of sympathy away from John towards the other two points of the love triangle. We’re left with a sense that, in lumbering his play with such a half-cocked protagonist, Bartlett ensures that his reflection on relationships, identity and the mysteries of desire is never more than skin deep.

 

Box office: 0141 552 4267, to Feb 20; The Lemon Tree, Aberdeen, Feb 23; Traverse, Edinburgh, Feb 25-27. Tron.co.uk

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