Bush Theatre, London W12
Opened 11 January, 2002

For some of us, there are few more gratifying sounds to be heard in a theatre than that of an audience choking on its own easy laughter, finding that what it had thought to be trivial, throwaway jokes in fact carry a much more unpalatable significance. Playwright Peter Morris not only adheres to this view, but is skilled at eliciting such responses.

In Morris's The Age Of Consent, the succès de scandale of last year's Edinburgh Fringe and now opened at the Bush Theatre, 25-year-old single mum Stephanie's accounts of her determination to make her six-year-old daughter Raquel a star are at first broadly comic in their blinkered singlemindedness, then uneasily so as we realise what Stephanie does not, the toll her campaign is taking upon her daughter. The final phase is one of agonising dramatic irony, as every word of Stephanie's account of her and Raquel's "saviour" strikes the audience as immeasurably more sinister than it does the myopic, self-centred mother.

In dramatic terms, the potency of Stephanie's monologues makes it unsettlingly easy to pass more lightly over the speeches with which they are intercut, although it was this other strand which provoked last summer's spurious tabloid fervour: for the alternating occupant of the bare, photo-studio stage is Timmy, a teenager about to be released from a detention centre after serving several years for the abduction and murder of an infant boy. In explaining the absence of real explanations, in confronting us in detail with the paradoxes and prejudices of the situation, Morris's Timmy is probably over-articulate; it is easier to swallow Stephanie's epigrams than Timmy's occasionally too-precisely worded insights. But the impression is that Morris's offence in the eyes of the sensationalists was, absurdly, to have thought about such issues at all. Hopefully, with the release of Robert Thompson and Jon Venables no longer a pressing media issue, the play can now be considered more lucidly, as an unflinching interrogation of the values invested in childhood by adults.

In Edward Dick's production, Ben Silverstone as Timmy has gained in strength and subtlety since last summer's run, so that the contest between the two sets of monologues is no longer as uneven as it was. Katherine Parkinson's Stephanie, though, retains the upper hand, simply because the role is more deliciously written even in its discomfort: its strategy is to seduce and then shock its audience, whereas that of Timmy's speeches is to confront us with our own passivity. American-born Anglophile Morris is resolutely political (indeed, avowedly Marxist) in his work; he is also, I am coming more and more firmly to believe, not just a welcome arrival on the playwriting scene but a necessary one.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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