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Consensual (Susan Elkin reviews)

This fine play asks a lot of very searching questions and answers none of them. The complexities of sexual consent were topical in 2015 when the National Youth Theatre first staged the play it had commissioned from Evan Placey. They’re even edgier now so the revival is timely.

The long first act takes us to a school where married, pregnant teacher Diane (Marilyn Nnadebe) who has already has a child is trying to “deliver” sexual relationships education to a cheerfully unruly group. At the same time she must deal with Freddie (Fred Hughes-Stanton) a student from seven years back who has reappeared in her life with an agenda. The very intense second act is a flashback which reveals what actually happened seven years earlier. It’s a neat way of exploring the central issue from a range of angles.

You can’t legally consent to sex under 16. Should it be otherwise? Can a male old enough to have a full erection actually be abused by a woman given that he has to take the more active role for sex to happen? (An issue which has always puzzled me but perhaps I’ve led a sheltered life). What about consent to sex between a married couple? What responsibilties does a teacher have if a pupil confides abuse by a sexual partner the same age? Oh yes, there’s an awful lot to think about in this play.

Nnadebe is a fabulous actor. She is totally natural as the teacher struggling to control a volatile classroom liberally but appropriately. She is convincing at home as the troubled wife and mother. Her awkward body language – partly the pregnancy and partly social discomfort – is beautifully observed. Then she sheds seven years and is suddenly lithe, long haired and drunk sobering up quickly and bantering with the teenage Freddie. Any teacher watching this will wince and want to call her away to safety. It’s a really terrific performance.

And Hughes-Stanton matches her, appearing first as the inadequate, flawed 20-something who works in a bank and who contacts his former teacher. There’s a fine, perfectly written scene with his brother (Jay Mailer) too in which the two actors play off each other with real truthfulness so that the acting is invisible. And I shall long treasure the image of Hughes-Stanton sitting on the sofa eating biscuits in Diane’s flat when she is utterly devastated but he’s too young and crassly unaware to understand.

The ensemble work in the first half is pretty electric although, well directed (by Pia Furtado) as it is, I think the song dance interludes are gratuitous. They do them very well but they don’t add much to the effect of the play. The classroom scenes are a delight though with a lot of humour gleaming through the issues. So are the conversations between Laurie Ogden as Mary, a young teacher and Georgia (Alice Vilanculo) an apparently confident student whose life is actually pretty troubled.

The Rep company is the top tier of NYT’s work. It offers funded professional training, predicated on a West End rep season for an ensemble selected from the membership. Consensual is the opening play in the 2018 season. Victoria’s Knickers and Macbeth are still to come.

This review was first published by Sardines: http://www.sardinesmagazine.co.uk/reviews/review.php?REVIEW-National%20Youth%20Theatre%20of%20Great%20Britain%20(Rep%20Company)-Consensual&reviewsID=3363

 

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Susan Elkin
Susan Elkin Susan Elkin is an education journalist, author and former secondary teacher of English. She was Education and Training Editor at The Stage from 2005 - 2016
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