Old Fitzroy Theatre, February 8

Matt Minto and Michael Whalley. Photo: Tim Levy

Matt Minto and Michael Whalley. Photo: Tim Levy

Finally, Sydney has the chance to see the acclaimed, provocatively titled Cock by British playwright Mike Bartlett – and this terrific production from Red Line Productions (the new caretakers of the Old Fitz), presented as part of the Mardi Gras Festival, shows why the play has generated such a buzz on both sides of the Atlantic.

After premiering in 2009 in London in the Royal Court’s tiny Upstairs Theatre, the play had an Off-Broadway season (where the New York Times reviewed it as the Cockfight Play while many other publications included an asterisk or two in the title).

Cock explores a love triangle between two men and a woman. Only one of them is named – the indecisive John, who is torn between two lovers. The others are simply referred to in the script as M and W (for man and woman).

John (Michael Whalley) has been in a relationship with M (Matt Minto) since coming out. They’ve now hit something of a seven-year itch and for John, anyway, the relationship is not what it was. Then to his surprise, he finds himself drawn to W (Matilda Ridgway), a lonely 28-year old divorcee who he meets at the bus stop on his way to work and ends up in bed with.

John doesn’t have a strongly developed sense of himself. Where the dominant M constantly puts him down, chipping away at his sense of self-worth, John finds a more positive reflection of himself in W’s eyes. She is gentle and nurturing and confident that they would be good for each other. She makes John feel that he could amount to something and she offers him the chance to have a family. Unexpectedly, the sex is pretty good too.

M is angry, outraged, seeing the affair not just as a personal betrayal but as an inexplicable affront to their identity and lifestyle as gay men.

John dithers. He doesn’t know who and what he wants. He’d prefer not to have to decide. But M and W are both prepared to fight for him. M gets John to invite W to a dinner party and ropes in his father (Brian Meegan) to help plead his cause. It’s an excruciating affair for all concerned. But John is cornered and is forced to make a decision.

Cock is a tight, tense piece running for 80 minutes. In many ways it’s like a dance that becomes an emotional tug-of-war before escalating into an all-out fight.

Bartlett’s writing is wittily astringent, full of staccato phrases and unfinished sentences along with short, sharp scenes.

The original production was staged in the round as if in a wooden cockfighting ring. It’s impossible to replicate that in the tiny Old Fitz but director Shane Bosher has managed to create a similar vibe by having a row of chairs along the back wall and down the two sides of the stage, which has been painted a gleaming white. The rest of the audience sits in the usual banks of seating.

I saw the play from a seat on the stage and at such close proximity, under Michele Bauer’s bright lighting, you felt voyeuristically close to the action, quite literally in the room with the characters. You were also very aware of the audience watching on from the darkness as they would have been of you sitting right there in the light.

Bosher directs and choreographs his actors with a wonderful sense of spatial awareness. The way he positions them on stage seems to heighten the tensions between them. He keeps things moving at a nifty pace, using short, snap blackouts to punctuate the scenes.

Michael Whalley and Matilda Ridgway. Photo: Tim Levy

Michael Whalley and Matilda Ridgway. Photo: Tim Levy

As in the original production, there are no props. A sex scene between John and W is performed fully clothed with Whalley and Ridgway standing close to each but without touching. Instead they circle other and gaze into each other’s eyes, their bodies and expressive faces speaking reams. It feels sexy and real.

Both are perfectly cast. Looking at the Whippet-thin Whalley, you know exactly what W means when she describes him as being like a pencil drawing that hasn’t been coloured in. And though John’s indecision should have you wanting to shake him, Whalley somehow manages to keep him sympathetic.

Ridgway is a wonderful mixture of vulnerability and determination. Though it’s not really clear what W sees in John beyond recognising a similar loneliness in him, Ridgway convinces you to accept W’s attraction and need.

Minto also gives a strong performance as M, all blustering anger and up-tight, savage invective delivered with a sure sense of comedy. Occasionally his performance feels a little overdone but he complements the other two extremely well.

Meegan stepped into the breach at the very last minute (when an indisposed Nick Eadie withdrew after a couple of previews) and so still had script in hand when I saw the production, but he hardly referred to it and was already giving a finely judged performance.

Cock in an engrossing play that has you thinking about identity, about knowing and defining yourself, about sexuality, about clear-cut sexual definitions and something more fluid, about desire, possession and power. It’s a cracker of a play and a great little indie production. Definitely worth checking out.

Cock runs at the Old Fitz until March 6