8th to 15th June 2024

Nina Raine | Crescent Theatre | Directed by Andrew Cowie

Complex and compelling: Nina Raine’s groundbreaking 2017 play is staged with style and substance at Birmingham’s Crescent Theatre.

It’s been a little while since I’ve seen a new play which I think we’ll still be watching decades from now. ‘Consent’ is, for me, now firmly on this list. I regretted missing the National Theatre debut production back in 2017 and, for some reason, didn’t manage to catch the West End transfer either. There was a lot of hype at the time and now I understand why. It’s an important play and has that rare quality which marks it out as something truly special: it asks deep and searching questions to which it provides no easy answers. I loved it, which is not something I expected to be typing after seeing a play ‘about rape’.

But ‘Consent’ is not ‘about rape’ in any straightforward way. Whilst the first half of the play is centred around a rape trial, it is really about the two barristers respectively defending and prosecuting the case: their profession, their craft, their flaws. We quickly get to know them personally. We see into their personal lives. We start to understand the nature of their relationships. We begin to form an understanding of who they are, as both men and as criminal barristers. It’s this clever structure which elevates the play: the personal and the professional in a tug-of-war. It makes for utterly compelling theatre.

There is no weak link in the performances in this latest production at the Crescent Theatre: Director Andrew Cowie has assembled a remarkably talented cast. The stark simplicity of the staging, a raised white rectangular platform, creates a clean, almost clinical, atmosphere. It is a courtroom and we, the audience, are jurors. Witnesses. The irony of the set works beautifully, suggesting a world of clean binaries: innocent or guilty, right or wrong, winning or losing. The messy, complex and contradictory nature of human beings soon rubs up against a dispassionate legal system and the scene is set for a play which tackles epic themes. It feels like a Greek tragedy at times: wronged women and God-like barristers give the play a timeless quality.

Mark Payne and Scott Westwood are excellent in the roles of Tim and Edward, the barristers with opposing briefs in the rape trial. Convincing in both court and domestic scenes, they provide a fascinating insight into the complexities of navigating competing priorities in both spheres. The brutality of the legal system is most powerfully captured in darkly comic moments. Battling over the moral high ground, Grace Cheatle is a wonderfully nuanced Kitty, Edward’s wife. The slippery nature of language is brilliantly captured in a scene in which she attempts to explain the difference between ‘I’m sorry’ and ‘I apologise’ to her defensive husband.

The competing roles in many of our lives - partner, parent, friend, colleague - are powerfully evoked in strong performances by James David Knapp and Perdita Lawton as married couple Jake and Rachel, friends of Edward and Kitty. Steph Urquhart is excellent as single friend and actress Zara and Katie Merriman is moving in her naturalistic performance as rape victim Gayle.

‘Consent’ is a play which lingers long in the memory. It is layered and complex. This production rises to the challenge of asking us to engage with questions about a dizzying number of aspects of human life (love, sex, justice, fidelity, trust, betrayal, vengeance, truth…) without ever preaching. It’s curiously uplifting in its affirmation that we must continue to work hard to understand ourselves and each other. A thoroughly absorbing production of a play which, in my humble opinion, will stand the test of time. Don’t miss it.

‘Consent’ is playing at the Crescent Theatre in Birmingham from 8th to 15th June 2024.