It’s a bold thing to take the subject of sex between a teacher and a minor, a topic we only ever see through the comfortingly reductive moral lens of our media, and smudge it into a big mess of confusing shades of grey. Consensual, a provocative piece of writing from Evan Placey performed by the National Youth Theatre, does this with abandon, and great success.
Young teacher Diane, played by Lauren Lyle, is busy introducing her class of precocious teenagers to the new ‘Healthy Relationships’ component of their PSHE classes. But then Freddie, a former pupil of hers with whom she once got too close, reappears in her life, seemingly damaged by the experience and looking for retribution. DIane, who is now happily, or at least comfortably, settled down with a husband and child and another on the way, finds her life starting to unravel as the prospect of prosecution becomes more and more likely. While this plays out, we return regularly to the classroom, where Diane increasingly struggles to offer her pupils any clarity on the complex moral and sexual dilemmas that they discuss.
Although never dull, Consensual is at its best when there is plot going on. The classroom scenes were sometimes too keen to Deal With Issues and it all got a bit BBC3, as characters took it in turns to explain the themes to each other. The meat of the drama though – the relationship between Freddie and Diane and the repercussions in their respective lives – is riveting. Oscar Porter-Brentford is especially good as Freddie, managing to be at once confident, manipulative, sexually precocious, and frail, damaged and desperately needy. The second act, which takes us back seven years to the night of Freddy and Diane’s encounter, is a riotous and confidently transgressive piece of theatre, which allows the audience to see events unclouded by the characters’ selective memories but offers no moral compass for us to orient ourselves. Freddie and Diane are both victims and predators; both are in need of something that the other is offering; both of them are damaged by their experience. It’s a fantastic feat of nuanced character writing. And – doubly impressive for a play about Big Issues and serious taboos – it’s extremely entertaining. Highly recommended.