Cougar review – breathless scenes of sexual power games in luxury hotels

Orange Tree, Richmond
This unsettling portrait of a world and a relationship in crisis breezes through 80 scenes in 75 minutes

Rose Lewenstein’s play triggers all kinds of associations. Since it shows two people locked in sexual power games, it reminds one of Martin Crimp’s When We Have Sufficiently Tortured Each Other, currently at the Dorfman. I was reminded even more strongly of Sarah Kane’s Blasted in that a hotel room becomes a refuge from external cataclysm. It’s an odd, unsettling play, yet for all its parallels, this is clearly the work of an original writer.

The form itself is striking: with 80 scenes in 75 minutes, Cougar offers a series of impressionistic snapshots. The relationship also reverses the usual roles. Leila, in her mid-40s, is an environmental expert who travels the globe lecturing CEOs on the profits to be made from sustainability. John is a barboy in his mid-20s who comes to her rescue during a violent row and ends up as her kept lover. Their life together is limited to luxury hotel rooms, but the growing crisis in their relationship is mirrored by escalating disasters in the outside world.

Hermetic … Mike Noble and Charlotte Randle.
Hermetic … Mike Noble and Charlotte Randle. Photograph: Richard Davenport/The Other Richard

Lewenstein writes perceptively about a hermetic affair in which money bestows power and in which John’s need for love is countered by Leila’s emotional impenetrability. I believed totally in the illicit thrill of their unequal relationship. However, in suggesting that we are all caught up in the spiral of short-term consumption, the play strains for effect. It was hard to credit that an ecological campaigner like Leila would be so casually dismissive about her carbon footprint.

Although stronger on sex than social critique, the piece is played at breathless pace in Chelsea Walker’s co-production for English Touring Theatre and the Orange Tree, and Rosanna Vize’s design ends up memorably despoiled.

The performances also have the right intensity. Charlotte Randle’s Leila combines the omnivorous authority of the moneyed with a hint of some inner vacancy, and Mike Noble as her peripatetic paramour mixes gaucheness with a growing assertiveness.

They play off each other well and, even if you question the action after you’ve left the theatre, the immediate impact is both visceral and disturbing.


Michael Billington

The GuardianTramp

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