20 Minutes of Action

CW: Sexual Assault
Rating: ⭐️

I think most directors and actors would be daunted when dealing with the impossible task of depicting a victim of one of the most heinous sexual assault cases in modern American history. Pollyanna Esse and her cast however take up the task.  

I wish they hadn’t.  

The play is unfortunately inconsistent, both in the actors’ American accents and the overly familiar GCSE drama feel of the play. It made me feel as if I was watching a troop of 16-year-old students preparing to fight the injustices of the world: an issue stemming from the direction rather than the acting. I do not however deny that Esse’s ambition is admirable, her motive noble – just execute it with the same intention. 

Firstly, the acting must be addressed. There were several saviours who carried the heavy burden of not just the play’s themes, but the lack of muster from the other characters. Benji Sumrie playing The Perpetrator had a monumental role, no easy task. He struggled through the first half of the play presenting a disjointed and uneven accent which distracted from any real acting; he also seemed to forget his lines at several points making his performance uncomfortable and to a standard not worthy of being staged. The latter part of the play was an improvement as his final speech, alongside his idealising parents (Molly Reed and Henry Mobius), showed remorse and a range of acting not seen previously throughout the show: the fake crying was a distraction though. Whether this was a direction from Esse or Sumrie’s incoherent take on the case, I felt he was trying to evoke a certain type of sympathy from the audience, making The Perpetrator seem more humane. This was in poor, poor taste. Additionally, the song playing upon my arrival into the theatre was ‘Wicked Games’ by Chris Isaak. Why this was the song choice for a play about sexual assault escapes me. With lines in it such as “It’s strange what desire will make people do” and “The world was on fire and no one could save me but you” how on earth did anyone from Esse to the producing team think this was in any way acceptable? It left me with a severely bitter taste in my mouth.  

On a more positive note, the sisterly bond displayed between the Victim (Fiona Forster) and Victim’s Sister (Sophie Westwood) felt genuine and I could see in the actors’ physicality good emotional depth which was true to the story. Forster had the daunting task of portraying The Victim through the verbatim lines Esse used in her writing of the play: a positive, as to paraphrase this case would have been troublesome in itself. However, Forster’s portrayal of The Victim was stagnant – she was rooted to the spot where from the other side of the theatre, her facial expressions could not be seen, more of an issue with the staging rather than her ability. To make up for this I would have liked to have seen more variety in her tone, it was at times monotonous and sadly wooden. Someone who shone out to me throughout the play was Westwood, her acting carried the whole performance and she was a breath of fresh air compared to the static nature of the show.  

Additionally, the play’s execution lacked cohesion. Whether Esse directed it with intentionally long pauses between actors’ lines, or they forgot them – overwhelmingly long gaps filled the show which felt awkward and disjointed. Another feature that contributed to this impression was the “synchronous” movements of the desks. If they were synchronous, they would have added greatly to the show. Unfortunately, this was not the case. What made it worse was the sequence where Forster found out about the assault case online. The lights were turned off and the actors’ faces were only illuminated by their phones. It felt clumsy. Sumrie’s phone switched off momentarily distracting from Forster’s speech, again making it stagnant and lacking flow. Having said that, The Reporter played by Evie Faber was brilliant. Her American accent accompanied with her tone and pitch, was convincing and fantastic. I wish she had had more dialogue as it would have elevated the play. This added to the rising feeling that the whole casting seemed off. The people who played background characters should have come to the forefront or played a bigger role.  

Finally, after enduring what can only be described as a slow crawl to the penultimate minute of the show, some of the actors came to the front of the stage to discuss sexual assault. This was the only part of the play I thoroughly engaged with. Highlighting the relevance and importance of speaking against sexual assault, I would have preferred there to be more clarity on who this part was referencing – whether it was the actors’ own experiences or another verbatim piece. However this was well done and there was a real profoundness that rounded off the play, and the main reason for what I can only describe, as a generous review.  

Overall, the play lacked cohesion and vision. However, I cannot argue that this was a reputable attempt at representing one of the most pertinent issues of our time. I only wish it was done better.

Image via Edinburgh News