Going into a play called Consent, complete with trigger warnings about sexual assault outside, it comes as a surprise to discover that the play is somewhat of a comedy. Even in its darkest moments, Nina Raine’s fourth play makes the audience laugh, but her clever writing will call on you to pull on every emotion in your arsenal. Following the success of its run at the National Theatre, Consent has arrived at the Harold Pinter Theatre.

At face value, Consent is a play about upper-middle class white people squabbling and joking over the very real details of various court cases they are working on, set under a ceiling of mismatched light fittings, not unlike an Ikea showroom. Kitty (Claudie Blakley) is married to defence barrister Ed (Stephen Campbell Moore) and the pair are seemingly happy with their new baby in their new house. They gossip over the state of their barrister friends Rachel and Jake’s (Sian Clifford and Adam James) marriage, while simultaneously trying to set up another barrister friend, Tim (Lee Ingleby), with actress Zara (Clare Foster).

Stylish and modern transitions juxtaposed with Kate Whitley’s more classical music compositions take us outside of the characters’ deeply complicated personal lives, full of adultery, guilt and parental crises. We promptly witness Tim, as prosecution, and Ed, as defence, battle it out in Gayle’s (Heather Craney) rape court case. It is Gayle’s storyline that reels in the rest of the play’s silliness. Ed is ruthless in his cross-examination of her, a technique he jokes about with his friends, fully aware that he is asking, “Nasty questions where the answers aren’t genuine”. Meanwhile Tim is bound up in the rules, meaning that even if he was capable of empathy and understanding, he couldn’t listen to Gayle’s testimony outside of the courtroom.

Craney’s performance as Gayle is of particular note. Separated from the rest of the cast by class and circumstance, her downfall is entirely unfair, and isn’t fairness what the justice system is supposed to uphold? Gayle is not eloquent or prepared, precise or emotionless — but people never are. Craney’s performance is the most human of all. This is something that Ed cannot comprehend in his own marriage. It is exhausting watching Kitty argue with Ed because he can’t resist cross-examining her or applying courtroom logic to raw and emotional events, like Kitty not wanting another child. It’s a never-ending rally as Ed yells, “the law is not going to work according to your emotions”, while Kitty insists, “that logic only works in court.”

Victimhood is heavily discussed in Consent, as once again, Ed fails to understand that innocence and guilt are different in and out of the courtroom and that it’s possible to be guilty of something that you’re also the victim of — it’s not either-or. Jake too seems more worried about privacy invasions than his own culpability. In cases of rape, the four lawyers on stage can’t even agree on what counts and it becomes clear that the legal definition of rape rarely adds up with the feeling of having been raped. All of this serious discussion is regularly interrupted by Jake’s sarcastic and cynical asides, a much-needed break in the tension.

You’ll leave Consent unsure of a lot of things. Are legal proceedings for rape cases fair? Can they ever be? When is revenge justified? Can children change a marriage for the worse? Can children fix a marriage? The only thing you’ll be sure of, in the end, is that you will never want to marry a barrister. Consent is an addictive and thought-provoking play, but I can’t think of a worse place for a barrister to bring a date.

Consent is playing at the Harold Pinter Theatre until 11 August 2018

Photo: Johan Persson