Hormones are a big deal in Sam Holcroft's gripping play Cockroach, the same hormones that turn teenage boys into physically aggressive brawlers and sexually charged flesh-and-blood batteries while transforming teenage girls into emotional roller-coasters with their own pumped-up sense of sexuality. But this isn't some exercise in titillation or shock-for-shock's-sake theater; Holcroft's lab rats, five students and one teacher in a detention class, are dealing with things far bigger than the chemical reactions in their bodies. Things such as the effects of social conditioning on gender roles and the conflict between human rationality and animal desires.
And then there's the not-so-small backdrop, the anxiety over something also bound up in hormones and aggression: war and the young men (and, increasingly, women) called upon to do that fighting. Think of Cockroach as a less-saccharine The Breakfast Club crossed with a less-nihilistic A Clockwork Orange, with the same yearning for understanding their place in the world that typified the 1985 Brat Pack film infused with the same sense of young people adrift in a violence-glorifying, self-gratifying culture portrayed in the landmark 1971 film. There are catfights, bro brawls, attempted rapes and seductions, and sexual tension between nearly every line. But it's not portrayed in a cheap, callous way; as much as these students are consumed by their own fears and desires, Holcroft's 2008 play is so skillfully rendered that the characters come off as very real people yearning for something authentic and solid to grasp in a time of confusion and unrest.
It's set in a classroom in “present-day England,” with only a few weeks remaining before exams. Teacher Beth is adamant the five problem kids in her detention class are going to learn as much as possible about science. In this case, that science is about the menstrual cycle and evolution. But none of them really cares about learning. All they really want to do is fuck around and fuck one another. And the smartest of the bunch, Mmoma, the only one with any real chance of doing well on the exams and advancing to college, is the most sexually charged of all.
Meanwhile, there's a “great war” the country is involved in. Older friends and siblings are being drafted into that war every day, and the two males in the class, along with each of their girlfriends, must grapple with what that holds for their futures. But any apprehensions about tomorrow are hammered in immediate fashion when the schoolmaster agrees to use the campus as a site to “recycle” military uniforms. The kids, though they're supposed to be cramming for exams, now have to take time to sort and launder uniforms, many of them still caked with the blood of soldiers.
The production, finely tuned by director Christopher Basile, wrings gold from Holcroft's script. Just as each of the six characters is fully formed and compelling on the page, Basile's actors are equally fleshed-out. On the testosterone side, Alexander Price's Lee is a big, aggressive guy whose explosive tendencies might make him ripe for a soldier, but he still seems like a hapless kid. Kevin Shewey's Davey is shier and more sensitive, but he carries a violent streak that doesn't take much to provoke.
While the males are interesting constructs, it seems Holcroft is more concerned with the female characters, as they are flat-out fascinating. Beth (a convincingly conflicted Kyra Kiener) is an apparently hard-as-nails instructor who, though older than her charges and equipped with a frantically ticking biological clock, is as scared by the war as her students. The three female students include the emotionally scarred Danielle (an effortlessly understated Adele Heather Taylor); foul-mouthed spitfire Leah (a wonderfully complex Katelyn Gault); and Mmoma (a wickedly talented Kourtni Pollard), who gets some of the juiciest portions of the play, including seducing a uniform through a torch song and a riveting scene in which this play about oversexed kids playing bad turns horrifyingly real.
The Monkey Wrench Collective, which is producing the U.S. premiere of Cockroach, has mined yet another diamond in Holcroft. The small theater has done a yeoman's job at finding work by young, U.K. playwrights that are edgy and uncompromising in terms of politics and tone. Though not quite as jaw-dropping and assaulting as some of the work done by other Monkey Wrench favorites, such as Mark Ravenhill or Sarah Kane, Holcroft's voice is equally blistering and distinctive. She's a young, British playwright (Cockroach was her professional debut) who, based on the deceptively dense waters she navigates in this play, already possesses a talent that any writer of any age would long for: the ability to say as much between her lines as her characters say in them.
This review appeared in print as “War In the Time of Love: The Monkey Wrench Collective finds a stunner in the high-school drama Cockroach.”