Wednesday 6 February 2019

Theatre Review: Cougar (Orange Tree Theatre)

Charlotte Randle and Mike Noble in Cougar
 (Photo: The Other Richard)

Benefiting from a whip-smart production by Chelsea Walker, Rose Lewenstein's Cougar brings a nervy, sometimes feral intensity to the Orange Tree stage. I only saw one play by Lewenstein so far - her elegant and touching drama about three generations of Jewish women, Now This is Not the End - but that didn't prepare me for Cougar which is an altogether wilder, weirder beast. 

A series of short hotel room-set scenes, presented in jumbled chronology, constitute the piece. All of the scenes involve Leila and John, a couple who hook up during a conference. He's a barman and she's a leading figure in corporate sustainability who jets around the world, promoting the "Green Agenda" to international companies. As their affair develops, Leila takes John on her trips, paying his way, and warning him not to fall in love with her. This arrangement gets tested by various factors, not least the ever-deteriorating condition of the world itself. 

With its hotel rooms setting, and focus on sex and power plays therein, Cougar superficially evokes John Donelley's The Pass. But Lewenstein's more surprising play has grander thematic designs, and ambitions that are hearteningly big. The play touches on a range of fashionable interrelated topics - #MeToo, Trump, climate change - but only occasionally (such as Leila asking John: "Are you consenting?") do those elements feel too calculated. Consumption, at both macro and micro levels, is the governing idea, and feminist sloganeering of the "Burn it all down" variety is avoided for something knottier and ultimately more provocative.

Charlotte Randle and Mike Noble in Cougar
 (Photo: The Other Richard)

The characterisation of Leila is particularly intriguing in this regard. An "impenetrable" compartmentalist, unwilling to say "Me Too" and with a desire to be "bought" by a man (imagine the outcry if David Hare had come up with this!), she comes close to "dysfunctional career woman" cliche. But Charlotte Randle's intelligent, carefully modulated performance - which shifts from sensuality to icy contempt in a hair's breadth - creates a fascinating, credible character. Mike Noble is equally compelling, as he shows John grappling with his place in this dynamic, pointing out the paradoxes in Leila's position as "a climate-change celebrity" and attempting to orientate himself via the Lonely Planet app before the cities that the couple find themselves in begin to blur. 

Indeed, as Rosanna Vize's set gets progressively trashed, Cougar takes on a hallucinatory quality, its "snapshot" structure, repetitions and mirrorings complemented by a subtly unsettling sound design by Alexandra Faye Braithwaite and superb lighting by Jess Bernberg (who did such an exquisite job on Jonathan Humphrey's 2017 production of The Death of Ivan Ilyich). Bernberg's work, in particular, contributes powerfully to the story-telling here, as it skillfully delineates temporal and location shifts as well as providing a few moments of startling exposure. Walker keeps the rhythm tight, sharp and coiled throughout, with scenes snapping off and resuming in unexpected places.

Overall, Cougar memorably conveys the hothouse atmosphere of a fraught affair while gesturing at the wider resonances beyond its claustrophobic parameters. This take on relationship upheaval and pending apocalypse will probably polarise people, but Walker's haunting production deserves to be a big success.  

Cougar is at the Orange Tree until 2 March. Further information here

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