Sonia Friedman Productions, National Theatre
Harold Pinter Theatre
The opening to Nina Raine’s engaging social comedy Consent is so amusing, warm and inviting you could almost imagine joining the characters as they joke, as they gently hold Kitty’s newly born baby and as they engagingly catch up with each other on things they have been doing.
It’s Kitty (Claudia Blakley) and Ed’s (Stephen Campbell Moore) housewarming. There’s expensive wine and these successful young people with a good disposable income seem very contented.
Three of them are barristers and it is only when the conversation turns to their work that we feel uneasy about their company. They seem just too casual, too insensitive.
Ed says he’s doing a lot of raping at the moment, or, to translate his flippant identification with the job, he is defending a rapist.
The way he expresses himself doesn’t mean Ed is empathising with the client, who we have no doubt is a rapist. He certainly doesn’t empathise with the victim.
As he later explains, the legal system is about winning and such things as empathy or even an attempt to find the truth can get in the way of that.
When an actor friend Zara (Clare Foster) seeks help in preparing a part, he and Tim (Lee Ingleby), a barrister who is prosecuting the rape case for which Ed is the defence, playfully illustrate the performative nature of the adversarial legal system with tricks they deploy to demolish a witness in court.
It’s all great fun. Except for those on the receiving end of the tricks like the working class woman Gayle (Heather Craney), a victim of rape and the cruelty of a legal system that fails her.
But the poison of practices learnt in work infects even the barrister’s personal life and, as their relationships fracture, we see them deploying the same tricks on each other.
Ed’s wife, a possible victim of marital rape, says of her husband’s claim to be telling the truth, “he says he is not a liar. That’s a lie. He does it for a living.”
Of course lying for the money isn’t an issue for her. It’s lying where it affects her comfort, that’s the problem, and she has her own tricks to deal with that.
These really are an unpleasant bunch and, just in case we make the mistake of excusing their ugly behaviour, Nina Raine gives us Gale’s very memorable and disturbing story told to one of their cosy social gatherings long after the case is over.
The charming bunch of privileged thirty-year-olds trying to live their shallow, dishonest lives are amusing and you might even sympathise a little with them. But you wouldn’t want to trust them or the deeply flawed legal system that helped create them.
Reviewer: Keith Mckenna