The National Youth Theatre’s revival of Evan Placey’s 2015 commission exploring the grey area of consent law and morality showcases some seriously formidable young acting talent.
I would like to start this review by saying that I auditioned for the National Youth Theatre twice, and was rejected twice. Not that I’m bitter.
In the programme, NYT Associate Director Anna Niland reflects that theatre is supposed to be “relevant and provocative”, a bill which this production of Consensual certainly fits. The play posits several questions to its audience concerning the muddy waters of consent, but leaves the answers open ended. What if both parties verbally consent to a sexual act, but neither one of them is legally able to give consent? If one is underage and the other is intoxicated, who is in the wrong? What if one of them was the other’s teacher?
The play opens with a meeting between Geography teacher and Head of Year 10 Diane (Marilyn Nnadebe) and Freddie (Fred Hughes-Stanton) seven years after an encounter between them that crossed every line between teacher and student. Freddie, who now at 22, works in a bank and styles himself as Frederick, recalls the incident as the culmination of months of grooming on Diane’s part, accusing her of preying on his vulnerability. Diane is adamant that Freddie followed her to her flat and took advantage of her after she came home drunk from a night out. Each believes themselves to be the victim in this scenario: they are two people remembering the same events from different perspectives and coming to totally opposite conclusions, leading to more questions concerning subjectivity, narrative and the reliability of memory.
Taking the facts at face value, Diane as a teacher was in a position of power and therefore appears guilty. Nnadebe’s portrayal of pregnant, pastel blouse and cardigan-wearing Diane could not be further than the stereotypical image of a sexual predator. But then, in real life few predators actually look like predators. Some don’t even realise they have committed an assault at all. The first act charts the disintegration of her professional and domestic life following Freddie’s uninvited re-entry to it.
The scenes set in the classroom that make use of the ensemble’s talent are particularly good, and manage to bring an element of humour to an otherwise extremely heavy subject matter. The NYT’s 16-strong REP Company give uniformly strong performances, bringing authenticity to the Placey’s otherwise tropey characters. Simran Hunjun’s girly know-it all, Jamie Ankrah’s cocky jokester and Christopher Williams’s sleepy kid at the back of the classroom, all ring true as a result, to the credit of the young actors playing them. The frenetic, tightly choreographed sequences between scenes allow the ensemble to showcase their singing and dancing talents but don’t really serve to move the plot on in any way.
One who stands out amidst this astoundingly talented bunch is Alice Vilanculo as Georgia, who has possibly the least time onstage, but has the most emphatic impact. Lead actors Nnadebe and Hughes-Stanton also deftly render the difficult emotions of their characters, carrying off the seven year time jump required of them extremely well. Though the second half of the play is tough to watch, like a slow motion car crash, both leads portray more or less equally empathic characters, hitting the dynamic just right at every turn so that neither is ostensibly in the right or wrong here. As a result, they are responsible for the success of the play in leaving the audience with the central questions churning round in their heads for days to come.
Though the text itself is slightly overfilled with plot and subplot for my taste, and I suspect that Pia Furtado may have recycled much of her direction from 2015, Consensual on the whole is a resoundingly powerful piece which succeeds in being both relevant and provocative. In any case, the extremely high standard of talent on display in this production tells me that the NYT probably made the right call in not letting me in.
Consensual is playing at the Soho Theatre until 9 November. For more information and tickets, click here.