REVIEW: Consensual, National Youth Theatre at Soho Theatre ✭✭✭

Julian Eaves reviews Consensual by Evan Placey performed by the National Youth Theatre at Soho Theatre.

Consensual review National Youth Theatre
The cast of National Youth Theatre’s Consensual at Soho Theatre. Photo: Helen Murray

Soho Theatre
25th October 2018
3 Stars

Three years ago, the National Youth Theatre launched this play in their season at the Ambassador’s Theatre, where it received respectable notices commending its interesting and engaging first act while noting that its energy and dynamism dissipated in the quieter, more conventional second act, and the play ended with a lot of untied loose ends, apparently simply forgotten and abandoned.  Now, the play has been revived, and nothing has changed.  There is still the vivacious hustle and bustle of the buzzing first half, dominated by a fulminating ensemble of school kids doing what stagey school kids are supposed to do (this could anywhere on the continuum between ‘Grange Hill’ and ‘Everyone’s Talking About Jamie‘) , rejoicing in the flexible, supple, gestural staging by Pia Furtado (and associate director, Anna Niland), and then there is the box-set duologue for the two main characters that makes up the entirety of the follow-up act.  The trouble remains that while the opening socks it to us with huge dollops of lithely choreographed (superb movement from Temujin Gill) adolescent energy (yes, we do think of ‘Spring Awakening’, and I mean the musical version – there is a lot of singing here, too, thanks to the niftily arranged vocalisations from MD Jim Hustwit), and we connect fairly strongly with his briefly but adeptly executed sketches of the characters surrounding the naughty teacher caught getting into the pants of one of her pupils, all of this magic simply vanishes in the odd interlude of the next act, which seems frankly to be a completely different play, stylistically barely connected with what has gone before.

National Youth Theatre Consensual
Marilyn Nnadebe and Fred Hughes Stanton in Consensual. Photo: Helen Murray

Matters are not helped by the time-trick played by the author, North American now resident in the UK, Evan Placey: we are in the ‘present’ for the first act, but flashback seven years for the second, to see and hear for ourselves what everyone in the first act had been talking about.  This creates an immense sense of anticipation in the audience to be brought back to the present in a third act, to round off the J B Priestley-like game with temporal perspective.  But that third act never comes.  Placey just stops writing, ‘leaving’, he says, ‘the audience with a lot of questions’.  I certainly had a question about this: Is that really good enough?  The sense of let-down is palpable, which is a crying shame, when the super cast and creative team have done their damnedest to make the whole thing work.

Marilyn Nnadebe gets to shoulder the great burden of the young Sex Ed teacher asked to behave with a total lack of professional command, and to stretch the audience’s grip on plausibility by throwing herself at a (slightly) troubled 15-year old in her care, when she is also seen with a complete hunk of an alpha male as spouse: nevertheless, she does a terrific job, even if the script never quite seems to make sense of what she is asked to do.  This is a bit of a ‘Miss Julie’ of a role, although – unlike Strindberg – Placey is not as unkind to his leading lady, even if he insists than when given the choice between desire and duty, she still makes a hash of things.  Cate Blanchett did the same in (the very similar) ‘Notes on a Scandal’.  Miss Jean Brodie does the same.  In a sector where women do most of the work, and therefore achieve most of the successes, female teachers on the stage seem forever doomed to be shown up as weak and incompetent, victims of their rather nineteenth-century ‘uncontrollable’ emotions.  Really?  Do we have to be told all this once again?  Is that what theatre in the 21st century is for?

Consensual review Soho Theatre
Marilyn Nnadebe and Oseloka Obi in Consensual. Photo: Helen Murray

As her target, Fred Hughes-Stanton holds the stage with remarkable poise, restricting his movements to the absolute minimum and using his voice and eyes with brilliant exactness, conjuring before our eyes the yawning gulf between his teenage and adult selves.  As the fallen idol’s husband in the first act, however, Oseloka Obi’s drop-dead gorgeous figure and steely disposition stand in stark contrast to the wife he has chosen and fathered children with: he has basically one line to explain this strange conjuncture, and – atypically for Placey – it is such a clunker that Obi steps around it with a deft manoeuvre, hoping we won’t notice.  The boy’s foil, his hard-working if also somewhat nefarious brother, Jay Mailer, is another fine addition to this NYT Rep Company, and the clever creation of his auto workshop one of the many charming moments in the first half’s design by Cecilia Carey.

Playing Miss Honey to the wicked Diane, another female teacher (Laurie Ogden’s simpering Mary) mucks up her career by giving Alice Vilanculo’s scene-stealing Georgia utterly misplaced ‘advice’ on how to do bondage properly.  Where was the Risk Assessment for that?  Honestly, what kind of CPD is this school of theirs actually putting in place?  But this is the kind of bonkers nonsense that is the theatre’s stock in trade when putting Education onto the stage.  Things are nearly always done badly, whether in the wise-cracking land of ‘The History Boys’ or under the awful regime of Miss Trunchball.  Placey is one of those writers who has been taken up by the National Theatre and then sent out, missionary-like, into schools up and down the land to do ‘workshops’: not having been educated here, it is this evangelising role that has given him the necessary access to reap the whirlwind of all the usual stereotypes.

NYT Rep Soho Theatre Consensual
The cast of Consensual. Photo: Helen Murray

Thus, we get Jeffrey Sangalang’s ‘God’s Gift to Women’ of Liam, and his willing doxy of Francesca Regis’s empty-headed Grace; then there are Leah Mains’ somewhere-on-the-spectrum Taylor and Aiden Cheng’s posturing one-note character of the professional gay student, Nathan, dismissed by Muhammad Abubakar Khan’s loud but deep-down insecure Rhys as ‘Tom Daley’ – a standard example of the classroom bants on offer here.  Simran Hunjun comes across as perhaps a little bit too Home Counties as Amanda and Jamie Ankrah does a turn as the ‘large’ boy, Brandon, but – like most of the others – isn’t really given anywhere to go with it.  Notwithstanding all that, the casting is nothing is not politically correct, you see, in a way that the conduct of the teachers is most definitely not.  Diversity and ‘access’ are all very well, but there are, as we know, in the solemn world of ‘relationships’, limits, and they are spelled out here, once again, with the shallow repetitiveness of the average PSHE syllabus.  Isabel Adomakoh Young as Destiny, Olivia Dowd as Kayla and finally the interesting turn by the under-used Christopher Williams as Owen and Mr Abramovitch make up the rest of the crew.

And where is Mr Placey’s heart in all this?  I have no idea.  This comes across as another well-intentioned and thoroughly box-ticking exercise in turning over once again an already well-ploughed field with entirely predictable results.  The good are shown up to be hardly all they’re cracked up to be, and the wicked are usually able to get away with the things the good prefer to wring their hands about.  That is why it is called theatre.  Diane’s immediate and complete post-coital angst is where this particular house of cards falls down around our ears.  Public Opinion is sitting behind these theatre-makers, breathing down their necks, insisting on a certain agenda to be followed.  And followed it is.  If you want to join them on that journey, you know what you’re getting.  Admire the talent and do what all children know how to do, and this play does not, look to the future.


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