There is a lot that is timely about playwright Emma Dennis-Edwards’ one-off drama about sexual assault – and a lot that is horribly timeless. Anxiety about how YouTube misogynists might warp teenage minds is very much of this Andrew-Tate-on-trial moment. But the way power dynamics play out to protect perpetrators and silence victims? That goes way back.
Lashay Anderson stars as Natalie, a confident scholarship student at an elite private school, which only recently began admitting girls to its sixth form. When she is named captain of the debate team it is notable, first because she is the only girl ever to have held the title and, second, because – in a moment of plot foreshadowing – her inaugural speech is being covertly filmed. What is the look in that boy’s eyes as he frames Natalie in his cameraphone viewfinder? Puppy love? Base hormonal lust? Or something else?
The boy is Archie (Tom Victor), the twin brother of Natalie’s best pal Alice (Rhea Norwood), and Natalie’s crush. Archie and Natalie exchange flirtatious texts and selfies in the run-up to the twins’ much-anticipated 18th birthday pool party that weekend. There will be booze, banter and even a sprinkling of class As. It is not quite a Euphoria-worthy bacchanal, but they are trying.
The party is also a main topic among Archie’s male friendship group – although “friendship” is probably too grand a word to describe their jostling, crude interactions. The lads’ WhatsApp group is always popping off with degrading comments about women and boasts of (imaginary) sexual encounters. In one efficiently intersectional insult, Raffy (Ty Tennant, his hair an apt shade of Slytherin blond) accuses Natalie, who is black and from a less monied background, of “trying to get Markled”.
To adult ears, this is all rather pathetic, but Consent does a good job of illustrating the very real pressure that peers exert – a pressure that is more inescapable than ever, thanks to the constant pinging of message notifications. For the unathletic Archie, sexual conquest seems the only way to gain social status and self-worth. It’s The Inbetweeners again – only this time played as tragedy, not farce.
Dennis-Edwards’ technique of bringing phone-screen chatter alive by having the other boys appear in Archie’s bedroom is a little stagey, but comes into its own when they start swapping porn clips. The sight of the group, sitting side-by-side, unbuttoning their trousers in unison, reveals this homosocial ritual for what it is: soggy biscuit for the digital age.
There is a fine line to walk here between understanding the root causes of male sexual violence – not least by confronting the uncomfortable reality that every rapist is someone’s son/boyfriend/brother/father – and excusing wrong-doers. That Consent walks that line so well is down to Dennis-Edwards’ careful structuring and the performances of the young cast, particularly newcomer Victor. He makes Archie believable as – simultaneously – a confused, fearful child and a dangerously self-pitying man.
Consent also understands that an incident of sexual violence can cause ripples of harm beyond the immediate circle of those involved. In the aftermath of her assault, Natalie has one stridently protective friend, Lily (Nell Barlow), who urges her to report it. Lily’s moral outrage is well placed, but also seemingly destined to collide with the reality of rape culture in England and Wales, where fewer than 1% of reported rapes result in conviction.
True responsibility for this state of affairs lies not with Lily, of course, nor even with Archie and his gleefully misogynistic mates, but with grownups like the school’s headteacher who, typically, is much more interested in ensuring his pupils understand the meaning of “discretion” than the meaning of “consent”. The casting of Kimberley Nixon from student sitcom Fresh Meat as Natalie’s ineffectual teacher serves as an implicit reminder that grownups were once vulnerable, trusting teens, too. Shouldn’t our own experience have taught us to do better by our charges?
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Interestingly, Consent leaves off where many others pick up; with Natalie finding the courage (and evidence) to report her assault to the police. Does this distant glimmer of something resembling justice constitute a happy ending? Lily might believe so, but anyone who saw Lucy Kirkwood’s astounding Maryland last year (still on iPlayer), or Unbelievable (still on Netflix), or who has followed, with horror, the trial of yet another Met police officer charged with rape, will not be so comforted.