Actually review, Trafalgar Studios: date-rape drama that argues compassionately for human imperfectability

Claire Allfree
Yasmin Paige and Simon Manyonda in 'Actually', at Trafalgar Studios  - ©ALASTAIR MUIR CONTACT alastair@alastairmuir.com

The last time Anna Ziegler had a play staged in the West End it starred Nicole Kidman, explored the neglected role of Rosalind Franklin in the discovery of the DNA helix and won a shelf-load of awards. This one is a modest two-hander produced without fanfare in the studio space at Trafalgar Studios. Yet for all that it’s still an important little piece that cuts through some of the clamour surrounding male sexual behaviour to suggest that when it comes to an alleged sexual attack, deciding who is guilty isn’t always an adequate means of determining precisely what has taken place.

Oscar Toeman’s lithe production is set on a Princeton campus during the boozey whirligig first months of Freshman year. One night Amber, who is Jewish, and Tom, who is black, end up in bed after an evening of tequila and keg beer. Within days, Tom is summoned by his faculty head: Amber has filed a charge of rape. Ziegler then spools back to present in fragments both sides of the story, as each student testifies before a college board that is legally obliged to use “preponderance of the evidence” when finding in favour. Or, to put it another way, whoever’s testimony it believes has the edge. You might argue that actual proof doesn’t come into it.

With its buzzy ideas of female consent, male entitlement and racial privilege, Actually feels very zeitgeisty. Yet its interest in how difficult it can be to legislate for the complexity of human behaviour owes rather more to the ancient Greeks. Both Tom and Amber are a fairly typical bundle of contradictions whose outward appearance and inner thinking rarely match up.

Neurotic self-loathing bubbles up out of Yasmin Paige’s endearingly nervy Amber like steam from a kettle: she knows she isn’t particularly “hot” since her mother once told her as much, has learned to have sex in silence after her first boyfriend put his finger to his lips, and has never quite understood what it means to consent to sex in the first place, something I suspect many women will sympathise with. Simon Manyonda’s charisma-fuelled Tom, meanwhile, a talented pianist brought up by his beloved mum, may appear wholly at ease but in truth feels anything but. He is used to being looked at for all the wrong reasons because of the colour of his skin, while Amber is used to never being looked at all.

Ziegler keeps things impeccably even-handed, but perhaps as a result, her play doesn’t achieve enough dramatic propulsion. Yet it compassionately argues in favour of human imperfectability to suggest that, when it comes to a contested sex act between two people, sometimes we don’t always ask the right questions.

Until Aug 31. Tickets: 0844 871 7615; atgtickets.com