Theatre review: Cock, Tron Theatre, Glasgow

James Anthony Pearson as John and Isobel McArthur as W deliver Mike Bartlett's sharp lines with flair. Picture: Contributed

James Anthony Pearson as John and Isobel McArthur as W deliver Mike Bartlett's sharp lines with flair. Picture: Contributed

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MIKE Bartlett is a real star among the current generation of young English playwrights, the author of plays including the bold satire King Charles III – seen in Edinburgh last year – and Earthquakes In London, at the National Theatre.

Cock | Rating: **** | Tron Theatre, Glasgow

Compared with these, his 2010 play Cock – first seen at the Royal Court – is a small-scale chamber piece, featuring just four actors on a bare stage, and 90 minutes of frank and fearlessly well-written dialogue.

Yet the play has a formidable intensity, well-captured in this Scottish premiere production by Andy Arnold of the Tron. And its highly-charged atmosphere is hardly surprising given its subject, which is a fierce 21st century love triangle involving the central character John, his long-time male lover M, and W, the woman he fell for during a brief break-up from M, and with whom he has absolutely thrilling heterosexual sex, described here in loving detail.

The question at the centre of the play has to do with sexuality and identity. In theory, relationships should be only about the individuals involved; in practice, being gay or straight in our society is still a political matter, defined by a recent history of profound oppression towards gay relationships.

It’s a point worth making, and Bartlett’s play makes it with slightly lopsided force, clearly preferring the ­politically-incorrect intensity of the new relationship to the obligations of the old, and adding an extra twist of comedy with the late arrival of M’s father, a supposedly liberal old gent, well played here by Vincent Friell.

All of this is delivered with speed and flair by James Anthony Pearson as a strikingly petulant John, Johnny McKnight as a wickedly sharp-tongued M, and Isobel McArthur as a radiant and fiercely intelligent W, in a production that features some bold if unnecessary bursts of movement between dialogue sparring-matches, and an absolute absence of set and props, even in the final disastrous dinner-party scene.

And if Bartlett’s play never gets much beyond the basic statement of its central idea – and is particularly weak in seriously exploring the positive ties that bind men to the gay community – the play still contains some memorably powerful erotic writing; in an age that thinks it knows all there is to know about sex, but in fact rarely discusses the real thing with any candour at all.

• At the Tron Theatre, Glasgow, until 20 February; Lemon Tree, Aberdeen, 23 February; Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, 25-27 February

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