A play pitched as being about consent turns out to be about a whole lot more, in the London debut of Anna Ziegler’s Actually at the Trafalgar Studios this August. The complicated and dialogue-heavy play sees two Princeton freshmen, Amber (Yasmin Paige) and Tom (Simon Manyonda) try to tip the scales in their favour during a college hearing over sexual misconduct. This leads the characters to analyse every relationship they have ever had as well as the influence of family, race, gender, religion and class on those relationships. Despite the sensitive subject matter, this play is genuinely funny as it refuses to shy away from human flaws and weaknesses.
The presentation of the play, designed by Cindy Lin, is very simple. It is just Paige and Manyonda standing, sometimes sitting, in front of a concrete-like backdrop, with a heavy looking partition that is uncannily reminiscent of a high-security prison or vault. There is only one prop, the effect of which is really impressive – I won’t give it away but it puts the cherry on top of an already brilliant play. Although much of the show is just the two actors on stage talking to the audience, the story switches between past and present, party and hearing, classroom and ice cream parlour, all of which are captured and realised by subtle sound and lighting changes designed by Duramaney Kamara and Jess Bernberg.
The transitions are further aided by the rhythm and thoughtfulness Ziegler has embedded in the script. As one monologue ends another begins with the same words, in a style that I can only compare, perhaps in disservice to Actually, to the Pitch Perfect franchise’s ‘riff-offs’. While it was occasionally difficult to see both actors at once, director Oscar Toeman has done brilliant job of injecting energy and movement into the minimalistic production.
Actually is one of those rare plays that tackles big, complicated, human issues in a way that is bound to strike a connection with anyone. Paige’s performance of Amber is wonderful. As the character fascinates over the Pratfall Effect, where mistakes increase or decrease a person’s likeability, Paige manages to make her often annoying character come across as endearing and even pitiful. Manyonda’s performance is exceptional and very funny. He builds Tom up as this charming, confident yet complicated character but then let’s us see his weaknesses and naiveties.
While I don’t think Actually comes to any conclusions about consent or universities’ dealings with it, the show presents two wholly imperfect characters and their entire worlds imploding with just two actors on a simple stage – the result is definitely worth a watch.
Actually is playing Trafalgar Studios until 31 August. For more information and tickets, see the Trafalgar Studios website.