Cock review: Jonathan Bailey captivates as Taron Egerton’s sexually conflicted lover

Revival of Mike Bartlett’s 2009 play fizzes with energy

<p>Taron Egerton and Jonathan Bailey in Mike Bartlett’s ‘Cock’ </p>

Taron Egerton and Jonathan Bailey in Mike Bartlett’s ‘Cock’

When Taron Egerton and Jonathan Bailey recently appeared on The One Show to promote their revival of Mike Bartlett’s play, they had to speak entirely in euphemisms, giggling as they told viewers to “google The Ambassadors Theatre”. First staged in 2009, Cock – the play that cannot be named – has always intended to shock. In 2022, Marianne Elliot’s new production follows the same suit. John (Bailey) is cohabiting with his boyfriend M (Egerton, making his West End debut) until they split up and he falls in love with a woman, known in the script as W (Jade Anouka). Unable to choose, John continues to date them both, promising that, of course, he’s going to leave the other. “You want your boyfriend’s help with the woman you’re sleeping with?” Egerton asks, bewildered.

Our language around LGBTQ+ issues has become infinitely more complex and nuanced over the last decade, yet Bartlett’s script rarely feels dated – especially when discussing sexuality. You feel the 2009 timestamp more in the misogynistic references M makes to W’s body. While M’s clearly hurting and the lines are delivered for laughs, phrases like “rug muncher” feel jarring.

Given he’s the only character with a name, it’s unsurprising to learn that Bailey’s narcissistic John is the star of the show. On stage, the Bridgerton star is utterly captivating, pinging back one-liners and prowling on the floor like a house cat with a seductive ease similar to that of his character in Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Crashing. M chastises him for his tendency to wildly gesticulate, yet when indecision takes over his life he stands rigid, unable to move with tears rolling down his cheeks.

Opposite Bailey’s all-consuming star, you can feel Egerton overcompensating to keep up. During the dinner party confrontation, John shouts: “When did you become so f***ing… camp?”, accusing M of trying to intimidate W, but it’s no camper than Egerton has been all show. Where he shines are in the moments of true vulnerability, when the sarcasm is dropped and he admits that John can basically do whatever he likes, because he will always be in his thrall.

Chemistry lesson: Jade Anouka and Jonathan Bailey

The chemistry between Bailey and Anouka is far stronger. During their initially awkward meeting, they twiddle their feet in unison, John part-repulsed, part-fascinated by his mind and body’s reaction to her. Opposite each other, they fizz, two performers able to match the other’s energy with a natural ease.

Merle Hensel’s set is stripped-back, the backdrop a wall of curved, fogged-up mirrors with two concrete benches attached. When the actors move across the stage, their shadows follow on a one-second delay, ghostlike. Bars of light hang above them flashing and moving in a way that immediately calls to mind the recent multi-cast production of Constellations. The emptiness makes the spaces between John and M feel all the vaster. Even when tenderly together, there’s a chasm there.

‘Cock’ runs at The Ambassadors Theatre until 4 June

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