Trafalgar Studios, London – until 31 August 2019
Set against the backdrop of Princeton University, Actually provides a reminder that, even in the era of #MeToo and #TimesUp, there remain plenty of grey areas when it comes to defining assault and determining consent.
Actually, from American writer Anna Ziegler, navigates the relationship between college freshmen, Amber Cohen and Tom Anthony, the play’s sole characters. This seems pretty innocent at first, flirting after lectures, a first date over ice cream, a snog outside a party. However, scenes from this courtship are suddenly disrupted by a flash-forward to a hearing to adjudicate Amber’s accusation of rape.
Yasmin Paige plays neurotic Jewish twenty-something Amber perfectly. She’s annoying, but the type of annoying you can get onboard with. There’s one beautiful moment where she’s speaking a thousand-words-a-minute. What, we, the audience are thinking – for example, ‘SLOW DOWN’ – is mirrored by Tom onstage. She’s deeply insecure, a little broken, not sexually confident and has body issues. You just want to give her a hug and tell her to stop worrying, put on some RuPaul and hold her head up high.
In contrast, Simon Manyonda as African-American scholarship student Tom appears smooth and charismatic. At points, I was crying with laughter at the way he delivered a line and made eye contact with individual audience members. This lightness makes subsequent emotional moments hit even harder and, and out of the two characters, I started to gravitate more towards Tom. Without revealing any spoilers: Tom’s character journey is intriguing and doesn’t conform to your expectations.
With direct addresses to the audience and interlinking monologues, the writing flows effortlessly. If I have a quibble, it’s that Zeigler tries to fit in too many popular culture references. Less is more. The subject is not one to be taken lightly and, as the structure jumps between past and present, you can’t lose focus.
The actors certainly don’t. It’s no easy feat to be onstage for the entirety of Oscar Toeman’s production. Throughout, their focus never drops, and their wittiness and stamina shine against Cindy Lin’s understated grey set with its multiple layers and Jess Bernberg’s lighting, slowly fading and illuminating each character as they confide their pasts, thoughts and desires.
I’m going to be frank: I went into Actually biased. I was certain I would be siding with Amber. But as the play ended… I found myself on Tom’s side. As he reveals, implicating us all: ‘In some ways, I’ve been on trial my entire life.’
The point is: the pendulum swings both ways with this play. They could both be guilty of lying. Who do you believe? Who is telling the truth? I’m not sure. This isn’t just a play about rape. It’s about growing up, navigating relationships and those life experiences that can manifest into something bigger further down the line. It’s about racial politics. It’s about micro and macro aggressions of society. It’s about the education system.
This play was first staged in New York in 2017. Three years later, Actually is still as relevant as ever. In her author’s note, Ziegler writes: “So even if you’re reading this in 2025 – or 2050, and colleges are no longer handling these kinds of cases – I’d like to think that this story will resonate. Only time will tell.”
Actually runs from 6 to 31 August 2019 at Trafalgar Studios 2, 14 Whitehall, London SW1A 2DY, with performances Mondays to Saturdays at 7.45pm, Thursday and Saturday matinees at 3pm. Tickets are priced £20-£30. CLICK HERE TO PURCHASE!