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Cock

Mike Bartlett
Royal Court Theatre Upstairs
(2009)

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The set-up of the Royal Court's flexible smaller stage space makes a big statement even before the lights metaphorically (but not actually) go down for this intense 90 minute drama from the writer of the unforgettable My Child.

The actors stand in a small gladiatorial ring, created by designer Miriam Buether, surrounded by audience members seated in a kind of three-tiered, pine wall of death.

What the visitors witness is a symbolic duel to the death engendered by the congenital indecisiveness of Ben Whishaw's John, the only named character in Mike Bartlett's subtle exploration of love and sexual attraction.

The opening is unorthodox, as linear time is sacrificed for dramatic effect, with broken scenes and rewinds unsettling but intriguing viewers, who are never quite allowed to recover their equilibrium.

Since Uni or soon after, shaggy-haired John has lived happily enough with a possessive but needy slightly older man played by Andrew Scott. Their future happiness is threatened after John is picked up by Katherine Parkinson's cheerless divorcee.

His initial experiment in heterosexuality soon becomes more serious. This culminates in the sexiest imaginable scene between a fully clothed couple circling each other two paces apart. Forget When Harry Met Sally, When John Met ??? shows what is possible on stage and is far hotter.

With the assistance of director James Macdonald, whose approach is appropriately clinical, we watch John manoeuvring between a foundering relationship with his male partner and the new-found love.

Neither partner makes the young man anything but miserable and things only get worse when each asks him to make a choice between them but by extension for either family life or an all-embracing gay community.

The play moves towards a great final set-piece, as not only does the trio come together in a battle for supremacy but the unnamed man's father in the person of Paul Jesson arrives to offer moral support. Instead, he stirs up already very choppy waters.

On the plus side, his open views are refreshing. It is hardly common to see a fifty-ish straight man propounding the advantages of a gay life shared with his own son, in a fashion expected of someone half his age and even then only with liberal tendencies.

The tension builds towards what turns into a moving ending that leaves everyone on and offstage in a state of mild shock, such is the power of the performances produced by each member of the acting quartet.

For anyone in or just beyond a rocky relationship, Cock should be avoided at all costs. For the rest of society, it makes compelling viewing, combining the voyeuristic delights of a soap opera with intellectual depth.

Playing until 19 December

Reviewer: Philip Fisher