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If This is Normal

Lucy Danser
Chatback Theatre
53two, Manchester

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If This is Normal Credit: Karla Gowlett Photography
If This is Normal Credit: Karla Gowlett Photography
If This is Normal Credit: Karla Gowlett Photography
If This is Normal Credit: Karla Gowlett Photography
If This is Normal Credit: Karla Gowlett Photography
If This is Normal Credit: Karla Gowlett Photography

After an extremely barren period, Manchester is suddenly enjoying a burst of new plays with Octagon Theatre, Bolton and The Royal Exchange staging new works and 53 Two hosting If This is Normal. Audiences are clearly appreciative with Lucy Danser’s play getting a strong turn-out on opening night.

Lucy Danser’s terrific script combines the Millennial angst of Sally Rooney with a David Mamet-style look at the subjective nature of sexual consent. On their first day at a new school, siblings Madani (Isambard Rawbone) and Maryam (Zarima McDermott) form an unexpected friendship with Alex (Aoife Smyth).

The friendship is unlikely as the trio have very different personalities. The older Madani takes seriously his role as ‘man’ of the house, safeguarding his younger sister and mother. Maryam, while studious, is also a bit arrogant and quick to judge. Although self-described as ‘gobby’, Alex is something of an underachiever, lacking the ambition of her friends and willing to consider the options of a simple job and a family. The bond between the friends endures throughout their schooldays, then, in the interim period between the end of school and the receipt of exam results, Alex kisses Madani.

There are no easy answers in Danser’s script and the author is less interested in allocating blame than exploring the nuances of the relationship and the impact upon the friendship. Madani and Alex have sharply different recollections of their night together: the former believing it to have been not only sexually satisfactory but also a romantic success, while the latter feels confused and violated. The complex issue of sexual consent, in particular the difficulty of determining right or wrong in such an emotional situation, is explored in satisfying detail. The script is, however, by no means dour and features a dry wit—the dress chosen by Maryam’s censorious mother described as suitable for a Victorian ghost.

Helena Jackson’s direction reflects the ambiguity of the situation. The opening scenes of the play are a giddy rush of childhood recollections with the cast stepping forward seeking audience opinions on their choice of outfit. Yet there is a strong underlying sense of anxiety, particularly from Isambard Rawbone showing how Madani’s unwanted family responsibilities drive him to obsessive physical exercise to achieve relaxation. There is not so much a loss of innocence as a growing appreciation of the complexities of modern life.

The performances of the cast help make the situation credible to the extent the audience is unable to chose a side. As the characters are realistic people rather than stereotypes, the play generates thoughtful consideration instead of knee-jerk outrage. Isambard Rawbone has a strong physical presence and shows an underlying anger—at Madani's situation rather than any individual—making it believable Alex might find him to be intimidating. Zarima McDermott’s Maryam is a ball of energy, restless and rarely stationary; accustomed to being the smartest person in the room and highly opinionated, it is inevitable she would rush to judgement without considering the consequences. Aoife Smyth’s insecure performance reflects Alex’s lack of self-worth and relative immaturity. Smyth brings a sense of gauche innocence to the role as if Alex is unsure what she wants from life as a whole, not just sexually.

If This is Normal is complex, intense and dramatically satisfying, marking a welcome return to new plays for the region.

Reviewer: David Cunningham