Writer: Carolyn Lloyd-Davies
Director: David Trevaskis
‘It’s just sex’. James, Anna’s controlling older boyfriend expresses this idea repeatedly in the prologue to Carolyn Lloyd -Davies’s importantly challenging play, which demonstrates that sex is not dismissible and the consequences, for everyone involved, are not necessarily ‘just’.
In a conversation that slightly recalls Fifty Shades of Grey, Anna and James agree ‘rules’ for casual hook-ups with other people. Anna meets Sean, a fellow medical student, at a party. One thing leads to another, and several lives are irrevocably impacted.
This is not a glamorous West End show. Indeed, it is all the more effective for the Cockpit’s small in- the- round stage, where every change of expression, every twitch of the finger, is noticeable. The play is openly intended to provoke (and there are two post-show Q & A sessions, which promise to be more stimulating than such events usually are). It raises questions: What counts as sexual assault? What are the consequences for the complainant? What are the consequences for the perpetrator? Is it ever enough to say sorry? Because the issues are at the forefront, characters are only sketchily portrayed, with the merest hint of family background. As a result, they are almost universally relatable.
The dialogue is not always natural. Sometimes the characters are mouthpieces for information: ‘You know the average term for rape?’ Sean shouts at Felicity, his mother. Amantha Edmead does an excellent job of making statistical statements sound like monologues, although it’s hard to do much with a line that begins ‘Last financial year…’. In one scene James’s lines are so obviously from the textbook of coercive control, even down to the colour – ‘Wear the red. You know I like the red’ – that it’s almost astonishing Anna doesn’t notice. However, the recognisable language is helpful. It leaves the audience free to focus on the story. In any case, the writing can be quietly effective. The opening conversation feels stilted, but it serves to illustrate an imbalanced relationship between authority figure James and student Anna. When she meets Sean they chat easily as equals.
In keeping with the economy of the script, Sorcha Corcoran’s staging is minimal, with none of the scenic details mentioned in the text. The set consists of a bare floor and varying arrangements of orange plastic chairs. A rather wolfish fake fur rug occasionally appears to represent James’s sofa.
Under the direction of David Trevaskis, all the actors inhabit their roles convincingly. Callum Wragg-Smith as Sean responds to arrest with incredulity, indignation and a panic so real you can feel his heart beating faster. Georgina Armfield makes Anna a credible mixture of confusion, vulnerability and courage. Louise Bungay’s Felicity oscillates painfully between feistiness and despair. As James, Steve Chusak is suave and subtly menacing, barely concealing the gestures and tone of a dog-trainer.
Lloyd-Davies has asked audiences not to pre-judge the play ‘based on anything they read or hear about Penetration’. It must be said, however, that while the play is supposed to be ‘non-judgemental’, the pre-show publicity itself leads towards certain points of view. It seems clear that James, described as ‘coercive’, is the primum mobile of this particular situation. Oddly, because he is the only character given this much detail, he is identified in the text as ‘30’s, top private school, registrar.’ Are we supposed to accept that posh boys come with problems? In fact, although it’s a universally acknowledged fact that rape knows no class boundaries, this is a somewhat middle-class play. The two young people are medical students. Sean’s mother knows a solicitor ‘from Durham’. When Anna joins a rape support Facebook group, the ‘user’s’ voices have regional accents. Is this to make them sound more trustworthy? Towards the end someone who sounds very like Felicity joins, speaking in RP about her own experience of rape. She is told she is ‘not helping’.
What the play does do successfully is show that an unhappy sexual encounter between two people can affect many others, including parents and partners. It forces the audience to confront many different perspectives and may awaken sympathy in unexpected ways. The writer’s bold claim that it should be seen by ‘everyone over the age of consent’ is hard to argue with.
Runs until 9 October