BWW REVIEW: CONSENSUAL Is A Confronting Look At Sex And Youth As It Questions When A Person Is Responsible Enough To Decide What They Do With Their Bodies
Thursday 16th March 2017, New Theatre, Newtown
Evan Placey's CONSENSUAL asks the audience to ponder questions plaguing students and educators around the world in a world where teachers are forced to distance themselves from their students for fear of being misconstrued. Confronting and challenging, this work, artistically interpreted by Johann Walraven (Director), is depressing when the challenges of teaching in the modern era is considered but also inspiring when the maturity of some youth is acknowledged.
Whilst Placey set his original work in England, focusing on a year 11 group, Walraven has transported the work to an Australian context and changed the class to focus on 15 year old year 10 students. With bursts of short scenes, the central teacher Diane (Lauren Richardson) is revisited by a past pupil Freddie (Paul Whiddon) 7 years after she last saw him when she was the school's Pastoral Care officer and he was a 15 year old who lived with his alcoholic father and older brother Jake (Rhys Johnson). Freddie has formed an unhealthy bond and obsession with Diane following an incident 7 years ago where the two crossed the line from teacher student relationship to something more although she is no longer sure she can remember the events clearly. Holding on to secrets from her older husband Pete (Benjamin Vickers) for 7 years, Diane now teaches Sex and Relationships Education class to year 10 students who are clearly already faced with the challenge of underage sex and relationships in an age of social media, smart phones and grown up expectations inspired by popular culture.
Renee Halse (set and costume design) has created an imposing space to represent the school where Diane teaches. Floor to ceiling black chalkboard walls are swathed with sexual comments and images filled with the usual insults, innuendo and vulgarity familiar to anyone who has seen the juvenile and immature words and pictures that enthral teenagers. To ensure that it is clear that this is a classroom, a projector screen hangs on one wall and desks and chairs fill the space beneath the fluorescent lighting. The students are in simple school uniforms of shirts and ties with little details like laddered stockings, shortened skirts and untucked shirts whilst the pregnant teacher Diane (Lauren Richardson) is in sensible shoes, her younger mentee Mary (Celeste Reardon) totters in heels and tight skirts and the mysterious Freddie is dressed up for an entry level office job but looking uncomfortable with the formality. Liam O'Keefe's lighting combines with Walraven's sound design and Nicky D'Silva's new music to provide shocking suspense filled scene changes presented with a sudden blanketing in darkness and a shock of sound.
As the 29 year old teacher Diane, Lauren Richardson conveys the flustered young teacher that is not quite comfortable gaining command of an unruly group of hormone charged teenagers. She captures a degree of unease at attempting to teach the tricky subject to students that have already formed their own opinions on the matter and aren't that interested in hearing a textbook answer. She blends this with a degree of superiority of a woman who thinks she has it all, an older husband with a 6 year old child and another on the way, but beneath the satisfaction that she thinks her past indiscretions are behind her there is an unease and rising panic as she has to continue spinning stories and being economical with the truth.
As Diane's former student Freddie, Paul Whiddon presents an obsessive young man who has clung to Diane out of lack of any other supportive adult figure in his life. Whiddon conveys the trademark warnings of a child at risk with a troubled mind and inability to differentiate between friendship and love.
As Diane's husband Pete, Benjamin Vickers presents an older man that has had a niggling feeling that he's secured a younger wife out of opportunity and strategy on her part. Vickers lets Pete evolve from a relatively calm protective husband who will accept what his wife tells him as truth to a volatile and dangerous man when the gaps in Diane's story are filled.
As younger teacher Mary, Celeste Reardon gives the audience a window into Diane's situation 7 years prior as Mary blurs the line between friendship and responsibility with Georgia (Eliza Nicholls). Reardon presents Mary's naivety and desire to be liked as misses the cues Georgia is giving her that the situation should be reported rather than encouraged.
Whilst Placey's CONSENSUAL doesn't have all the answers or a completely resolved storyline, it prompts the audience go away and ask questions. It is interesting and engaging in considering how society approaches sex, relationships and youth and authority. It is situations like Diane and Freddie's where borders get blurred and allegations that can destroy lives are made that has resulted in an education system where teachers are afraid of being seen to form any sort of friendship with students for fear that someone will misconstrue the intent. Placey includes moments of clarity and sense, providing important messages like Nathan's (Callum Alexander) observation that the way a person dresses and behaves does not amount to consent and that at 15 Owen (Rhys Johnson) believes he was too young at 14 to be responsible enough to make a decision that can affect a person greatly. This is well presented and well worth seeing, regardless of whether you have children (this is however not suitable for children), or an educator. It raises important questions whilst also having a wonderful element of humour and familiarity.
New Theatre, Newtown
14th March - 15th April 2017