How can the same press which has (rightly) heaped praise on Gregory Burke's Gagarin Way condemn Peter Morris's The Age Of Consent? The obvious answer is that it is not the same press; those critics who have seen Morris's play have been uniformly laudatory, but it is the sensationalism in the news pages which will make the "Bulger comedy" stick in the mind.
In fact, the piece is nothing of the sort. Yes, Morris bases the character delivering one of this pair of intercut monologues fairly closely on a conflation of Jon Thompson and Robert Venables; yes, a number of sardonic lines in each monologue get laughs. But the play is neither trivialising nor sensation-seeking. Morris takes the power and position of the playwright extremely seriously: he is committed to the obligation to question rather than to pretend to pat answers, and he brings a fearsome intelligence to bear on his subjects. Sometimes too much so: every so often one can see him drawing attention to this process, and on several occasions he opts for a pithy phrase over plausibility of characterisation. But particularly in the final movement of the other monologue – delivered by a determined single showbiz mum who traumatises and endangers her tot for her own glory – his writing attains a beautiful subtextual power precisely by dint of not spelling things out. Ed Dick's production at the Pleasance does it full justice; it is to be hoped that Morris is now paid attention as a writer rather than a scandalmonger.
Compare this play with Pip Utton's Resolution at the Assembly Rooms. Utton draws more sympathy because he chooses a situation which more of us are likely to feel unjust; to put it another way, his protagonist – the father of a teenage girl killed by a drunken hit-and-run driver – advocates right-wing revanchism. As drama, though, Utton's is by far the more manipulative piece, almost to the point of fraudulence; he pretends to be raising questions, but is in fact persistently leading us in his desired directions. When he is not corralling us, he is copping out. Utton is an energetic, dedicated actor, but not one with a great range; it took twenty minutes for me to realise that he was portraying two characters rather than a series of sidelights and flashbacks on the same individual. This is poor stuff beside The Age Of Consent, which – it cannot be said too often – is provocative in the best ways theatre can and should be.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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