Nina Raine excels at writing scenes in which people are spectacularly awful to one another. Consent contains many moments in which her characters brutally wound each other with words.
Premiering at the National Theatre last year , before the Harvey Weinstein allegations and the resultant #MeToo movement, it’s a carefully crafted and clearly very well researched play. It’s also problematic, in more ways than one, something this West End transfer only magnifies.
The birth of Edward (Stephen Campbell Moore) and Kitty’s (Claudie Blakley) first child has put a strain on their marriage. Their friends Jake and Rachel (Adam James and Sian Clifford) are also having a marital crisis as they deal with the repercussions of his infidelity. They’re trying to set their single friend Tim (Lee Ingleby) up with actor Zara (Clare Foster) – who, obviously, as a single woman in her late 30s is near-feverish with baby-hunger– though Tim actually has a bit of a thing for Kitty.
With the exception of Kitty and Zara, the characters are all barristers. Edward and Tim are working on a rape trial, on opposing sides, and Raine shows how the legal system ends up putting women on trial, picking over their past, questioning each drink and chastising them for not behaving sufficiently like victims.
If you’re looking for a sympathetic portrait of criminal barristers and the difficulties they face – the poor pay, the aggressive cuts – this play isn’t going to provide it. Raine is more interested in ideas surrounding power and the way infidelity can sour a marriage.
Consent is an elegantly structured piece of writing, no doubt, a smart bit of theatrical engineering full of arguments and counter-arguments eloquently expressed. All the characters fulfil a specific narrative function, though it’s disappointing that Gayle, the working-class rape victim, is the least fully formed person on stage. A scene in which she is palpably distressed feels like it was primarily designed to shake up the other characters. She literally crashes their party.
The new cast brings a different energy to the production. As Edward, Campbell Moore lacks Ben Chaplin’s cocktail of charm and weapons-grade arrogance, but his anguish feels rawer and deeper. He ties his long-limbed body in knots. Ingleby’s Tim is drippier and, therefore, more unnerving. James, returning as Jake, remains robust and funny, while Blakely’s Kitty grounds the play.
But Roger Michell’s production feels less substantial on the West End stage, narrower in world view, more conservative in form and, for a play that’s only a year old, strangely dated.