THEATRE COCK Theatre Upstairs, Royal Court, London *****
It's been a big week for the male member on the London stage. The penis is a wayward minx and, as Alan Bennett's Auden puts it in The Habit of Art, it's a shocking little shape-shifter, often shrivelling up so small as to make the distinction between circumcised and uncircumcised a matter of absolute speculation, while constituting a key instance of "the propensity of the flesh to creep".
Now, the young playwright Mike Bartlett gives us, on behalf of his generation, an equivalently brilliant and blackly hilarious feat of provocation (and one which also pivots on the penis) in Cock at the Theatre Upstairs. Trust me: you won't find such marvellous moment-by-moment acting (from the four-strong cast) or more punctiliously expressive direction (from James Macdonald) anywhere in the country at present. Admittedly, Cock is no prick-teaser as a title, but by the end of this intense, unbroken 80-minute encounter with Bisexuality and its Discontents, you may feel that word also connotes a load of overbearing, pernicious bollocks and richly describes the exclusively gay half of the conflicted young male, same-sex couple at the centre.
Lady Bracknell would have the right expression to encapsulate what John (the lovely, quiveringly subtle Ben Whishaw) is up to. She would say that he is "shilly-shallying". He's in a festering long- term relationship with M who is portrayed with acute comic understanding of the character's hang-ups by the ever-brilliant Andrew Scott. I'm afraid that I watched M with appalled fascination for the way he treats poor John is more or less how I treat my wife and children. His basic unit of communication is the kind of baroque aria of the bullying, queeny self-display that is self-dislike turned inside out. To admit anything to this man is to give a hostage to fortune; tell him that a woman is not your standard idea of feminine, and he'll turn it into a vicious running gag whereby the woman is incrementally transformed into Arnold …