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Review of Consent at the Dorfman Theatre

A scene from Consent by Nina Raine. Photographer Sarah Lee
A scene from Consent by Nina Raine. Photographer Sarah Lee

Playwright Nina Raine’s contempt for the justice system and barristers is seemingly the driving force behind her latest offering Consent currently playing in the round at the Dorfman.

Under a canopy of dozens of different light fittings that reminded me of the lighting department in the late lamented BHS stores, we follow the ups and downs of three upper-middle class barristers and their partners. The marketing for the play led me to believe that a rape case and its victim would be central to the plot but it turns out that this is just a device to peel away the layers of the three barrister’s relationships with each other and their various partners.

The six main protagonists are just not very nice people and it’s hard to empathise with them as the plot unfolds. “Jake” played by Adam James and “Edward” (Ben Chaplin) talk about victims and perpetrators of rape with sheer contempt, making fun of their accents and the fact that they are working class whilst drinking fine wine. Their respective partners “Rachel” (Priyanga Burford) who’s also a barrister and “Kitty” (Anna Maxwell Martin), seem almost complicit in this and laugh at the banter between the two barristers as if it’s the norm – they all seem so shallow.

Later, more contempt is shown for the legal system as “Tim” (Pip Carter), the prosecuting barrister in a rape trial meets “Gayle” (Heather Craney) who’s the victim but because of the way the system works, he can’t help or sympathise with her even though she’s obviously in distress because as far as he’s concerned, she’s just another witness to be cross-examined.

As the play develops, we find that all is not well in the lives of these seemingly happy, successful and powerful people. “Rachel” has thrown “Jake” out as he’s a serial adulterer. “Kitty” has just had a baby (played with great serenity and calm by the author’s own baby) but there’s an underlying tension between her and “Edward” as he’s been unfaithful five years before – and she’s soon out for revenge. “Tim” has been “matched” by the foursome with actress “Zara” (Daisy Haggard) and although they don’t hit it off at first, they’re soon embroiled in the two couples increasingly complicated relationships, which look as if they’re doomed to end in failure and recrimination.

The performances by the cast of seven are on the whole superb. Anna Maxwell Martin is the stand-out and bestrides the stage like a caged tiger, never still for a moment – just a nano-second away from exploding with rage. She’s ably supported by the rest of the cast although Ben Chaplin’s voice is a bit whiny at times although it fits his very unsympathetic character. Their relationship reminded me at times of “George” and “Martha” in Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? as they direct cruel barbs at each other in a bid to win points in a battle of verbal ping-pong. Heather Craney as the victim of rape, is a little underused and it would have been nice to have seen more of her character.

Roger Mitchell’s direction is excellent as we move from the gentle, naturalistic opening scene into the darkness and bitterness that follows. The staging is excellent with the various room-settings coming up from the bowels of the Dorfman and slipping into place as different domestic light fittings descend from the roof to denote where each scene is set. It’s a little episodic at times with a lot of black-outs but there’s clever use of place and time that moves the plot along.

Nina Raine has written a witty, clever and thoughtful play that doesn’t quite match up to its premise. In the programme, there are four articles about rape and the justice system, that go into quite a bit of detail on those subjects which disappointingly the play doesn’t. In the end, it’s really about the relationships of six people whom I found hard to have any empathy for and that’s the hole in the centre of Consent that stops it going from being a very good play to a great one.

Three and a half gold stars

Review by Alan Fitter

Consent
Why is Justice blind? Is she impartial? Or is she blinkered?
Friends take opposing briefs in a rape case. The key witness is a woman whose life seems a world away from theirs. At home, their own lives begin to unravel as every version of the truth is challenged.

Consent
A co-production with Out of Joint
a new play by Nina Raine
Now playing
Running Time: 2 hours 20 mins including interval
https://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/

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