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A CurtainUp London Review

"And I think that might be the first time you've asked me anything about my life."
— John
Mike Noble as John and Charlotte Randle as Leila
(Photo: The Other Richard)
"Cougar" is the term commonly used for an older woman who has a much younger boyfriend. It is interesting, isn't it, that the male equivalent, "Sugar Daddy" in use for decades longer has an altogether softer and less predatory feel than the wild cat? We do have some idea as to what to expect from Rose Lewenstein's play Cougar from its title, and its impersonal hotel bedroom set, dominated by a double bed.

Charlotte Randle plays Leila a business woman, working at international levels for a company promoting ecology and better use of the planet. In her forties, we see her only in one of the many hotel rooms she takes on trips or conferences away, all looking remarkably similar. With her is John (Mike Noble) a barman at the first hotel, a young man in his twenties who met her when he defended her from the sexual advances of a male colleague. John seems to have been fired after this incident and ends up in her hotel room.

Spontaneity takes over and she offers him a trip with her to Brazil. The contrast between the two is patent. She is older, richer, employed in a powerful position. He is younger, has no money, unemployed. She refuses to answer his questions about whether or not she is married and sets ground rules for their trips like saying he mustn't fall in love. We assume she must be married. It's hard to call it a relationship because they don't really relate to each other and even the sex seems not that exciting. We can see what is in it for him: travel to places he would not usually see. Early on he spends his rent money on a camera so he can record these places but of course he is not allowed to photograph Leila. But what is it that Leila gets out of the deal? Power? Domination?

Her job is about climate change and making the planet more sustainable and here she chooses the most unsustainable relationship, presumably dangerous to both her assumed marriage, maybe with or without children, and to her professional reputation. Can no-one have noticed who she travels with or who stays with her or is their only contact in the hotel room? There are some questionable practicalities too, such as does no-one ever phone her in the hotel or she them?

Rose Lewenstein's play shows us what happens between John and Leila but leaves many, many questions for the audience to ponder on. In these days of "Me Too" and the media exposure of powerful men using their power to prey sexually on vulnerable girls and woman and gay men, Cougar shows an alternative scenario. I suppose the difference is that John is not made to meet Leila, it is his choice but some of their conversations show that it is her calling the shots.

Charlotte Randle's Leila has a cool, crisp detachment which makes her very unsympathetic. She doesn't seem to be having much fun. She has a designer frock and shoes but I would have given her some glamorous underwear to match the poses on the bed showing a lot of leg. Her slip and bra don't match and look more Primark than Agent Provocateur.

Mike Noble's John enthuses as he visits different parts of the world with a child like discovery and is easier to relate to, especially when Leila is trying to control him. She buys him clothes she wants him to wear but in this production the clothes are identical to what he was already wearing whereas I would have thought the message was meant to be one of control, changing him.

The set has a probably intentional claustrophobic feel to it, in the Orange Tree with the audience on all four sides so there isn't much space for Chelsea Walker's direction but she manages not to block the sight lines. In terms of unconscious bias, I am humbled when I realise that no-one asks whether predatory men are married or have children.

I feel Rose Lewenstein could develop it so that its message is more explicit. As I left the theatre I saw a woman puzzling over the flyer for the play and I surmise trying to work out what she had just seen.

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Written by Rose Lewenstein
Directed by Chelsea Walker
Starring: Charlotte Randle, Mike Noble
Design: Rosanna Vize
Lighting Design: Jess Bernberg
Sound Design and Composer: Alexandra Faye Braithwaite
Movement: Shelley Maxwell
Running time: One hour 15 minutes without an interval
Box Office: 020 8940 3633
Booking to 2nd March 2019
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 5th February 2019 evening performance at the Orange Tree Theatre, I Clarence Street, Richmond TW9 2SA (Rail/Tube: Richmond)
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