As getting arts funding seems to be as easy as getting the famous fat camel through the eye of a needle, the question ‘why theatre matters?’ is being thrown out into the stratosphere as often as a swear word in London. As the battle for the arts gets bloodier with every cut, some seem to forget the answer to this question. Why does theatre matter?

Theatre matters because it can raise questions nothing else can. It allows us to vocalise views and concerns on the world under imaginary circumstances, and gives us the chance to debate and reflect without threatening a knife-sharp statement down the throat. That’s why theatre for young audiences is so important – it’s a chance to educate the next generation and an opportunity for them to experience the matters of the world. It’s a safe place for debate, for thought, and that is why Martyr at the Unicorn Theatre is a performance not to miss.

Benjamin isn’t doing well at school. His mother thinks it’s drugs – his teachers that it’s puberty’s counterstrike. But Benjamin hasn’t got body issues – he’s found God and can no longer tolerate the blasphemous ways in which school and society is run. Grabbing fundamentalism by the guts and asking how far you should go for your belief, Actors Touring Company offers a spicy, unforgiving and powerful debate so relevant and so provoking for today’s world. Questioning how accommodating and tolerant we should be, serving us the consequences of our doubts and actions, Martyr is a chilling wakeup call and an intensely intelligent piece out to grab you where it hurts.

The play starts with a young tone, with the playwright’s voice aiming at a younger audience and its stereotypes of parents, teachers and school but, as Benjamin’s faith grows fanatically dangerous, the atmosphere drastically darkens and it becomes very clear the bones of Marius von Mayenburg’s otherwise funny writing is dark and dangerous. Under the surface a serious debate is bubbling and as we are propelled through Benjamin’s actions a bitter taste starts to linger.

Daniel O’Keefe’s performance as Benjamin is nothing but spectacular – the intensity and determination of Benjamin is horrifying and O’Keefe never drops the energy for a second. He is electrifying to watch and drives the play with such emotional rawness and intelligence we are left a toxic mix of excitement and terror. Natalie Radmall-Quirke’s opposing teacher Erica is mesmerising as she gradually excels into uncontrollable frustration and obsession. The two fuel the heart of this play and its argument, and leave us gobsmacked at the end. Ramin Gray’s direction is slick and imaginative with the evolving set and actors onstage throughout, and his flair for text and emotional drive keeps the play on its toes.

Despite its comical, slightly slow start, the company quite quickly proves just how important this play is. It will leave you excited and upset, uplifted at the craft of the production but disturbed by the rawness of it too. Exposing a play like this to young people is how we have a safe debate and why theatre is important. A funny, powerful and thought-provoking performance you shouldn’t miss.

Martyr is playing at the Unicorn Theatre until 10 October. For tickets and more information see the Unicorn Theatre website.  Photo by Stephen Cummiskey.