first night


Nikhil Vyas experiences a love story with a twist in Battered Soul's debut production.

 Battered Soul Theatre's manifesto is to bring 21st century theatre to Durham- a welcome acknowledgement of the need for fresh, contemporary writing on the DST scene. For their debut play, they've chosen to perform Mike Bartlett's Cock- which despite the provocative title, succeeds in blending comedy and poignancy to create a witty yet heartfelt examination of modern relationships. And the strength of Jenny Walser's production is in its subtly building power, which strips away all artifice and distance until you are utterly immersed in the struggles of the characters.

The play follows John (Theo Holt-Bailey), a young man who escapes a psychologically abusive relationship with his boyfriend M (Owen Sparkes) and who finds himself instead falling for W (Dannie Harris). Through these characters and perspectives the script explores the fluidity of sexuality, identity and love, as John is forced to grapple with his identity as a gay man and to come to terms with the effect of his indecisiveness on those he cares for.

Yet what is immediately striking is the pared-down staging, which involves zero props or set, and instead uses the actor's bodies to convey the shifting moods and situations. While this conceit is wonderfully deployed, I would have loved to seen this pushed even further in frequency and imagination, as unfortunately certain scenes slipped into looking static. At its most memorable moments, however- for example, John's first sexual encounter with W, or the dinner party at the climax of the play- the merging of non-naturalistic staging and cinematic precision in the performances was breathtaking.

It goes without saying that the actors had nothing to hide behind, necessitating a high level of skill to keep the audience engaged. Without a doubt this was achieved- Walser should be praised for creating a set of detailed, nuanced characterisations combined with excellent chemistry, with her cast. Particular attention should be given to the delivery of Bartlett's hyper-realistic dialogue, which was performed almost vowel-perfectly and which was the essential root of the play's power. As John, Holt-Bailey had a difficult task to make sense of his character's vacillating and neurotic presence, which he met admirably- his sprightly energy and nuanced expression was truly compelling and kept us consistently engaged in John's story. While W was more enigmatic (or under-written, if one wishes to be less kind), Harris eventually developed a performance that successfully combined both cool-headed reason with righteous anger. For me, however, the most impressive showcase of talent came from Sparkes as M. He dramatically over-turned a character that could have been far more antagonistic into one whose nastiness stemmed from his own emotional struggle in the face of John's treatment of him, and who utterly succeeded in winning our sympathy.

The only real weaknesses for me stemmed from the script itself, towards the end of the play. While the narrative has a slow and effective build, the introduction of M's father, F in the climactic scene was far less satisfying. This was used to shoe-horn in debates about inter-generational conflicts over sexuality which, for a play that was generally subtle in its treatment of such topics, felt ham-fisted and unnecessary.  Credit must be given to Theo Harrison, whose performance nevertheless kept his character entertaining and meaningful throughout. The final moment of the play, it has to be said, was one of the most gripping theatrical moments I've seen at Durham- a moment of perfectly sculpted tension that  left me light-headed from holding my breath so tightly.

Cock is the kind of play that prompts you to examine your own sense of identity and perspective on matters of sex, relationships and love- but what makes it even more memorable is its thrilling story and characters. All involved in this production deserve considerable praise: they've crafted a seriously impressive piece of student theatre, and one which is a must-see. And if all other reasons fail, it's worth seeing for the jazzy shirts alone. 

29 November 2015

The views expressed in the reviews and comments on this page are those of the reviewer, and are not representative of the views of DST or Durham University.
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