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Consensual (Ambassadors Theatre)

The National Youth Theatre's rep season contends with the best of the West End

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

The National Youth Theatre's new play opens with the boom of a brain-bustingly loud subwoofer. It is an appropriate opening gambit: Consensual is designed to shake your moral compass to its core.

In our world of sexting, internet porn and online chat-rooms, stories about young people being groomed for sex sadly aren't rare. But Evan Placey's intelligent, gripping new play about a pupil-teacher relationship offers a 360 degree view of a situation that most of us only read about in one dimensional headlines.

Diane made a mistake seven years ago as a 22-year-old teaching assistant. She got too close to one of her unhappy 15-year-old pupils, Freddie. Seven years later, when she's heavily pregnant and now a fully qualified teacher, Freddie turns up. Lost and unhappy, he's intent on pressing charges.

Though we see both of their stories, in the first half we're never sure the truth of what happened. While Diane tries to teach a bunch of teenagers SRE – the new educational buzzword for Sex and Relationships Education – her world unravels in the background. Freddie, meanwhile, is undermined and ridiculed by his brother for going to the police. At the time, he crowed about his conquest.

Unsettlingly, who is right and who is wrong is not clear cut in Consensual. We witness manipulation on both sides which is a subtle challenge to most people's knee-jerk view that the adult is always the monster. What ultimately comes out of the play, though, is that when it comes to teenagers, sex and school, nothing is simple.

There to grapple boisterously with the complex issues at the centre of the play are Diane's SRE class. Scenes with these sexually active, bolshy teenagers intersperse Freddie and Diane's plotlines. The fierce, funny classroom banter and sharp put downs, give the piece its heart and mind.

The NYT cast give a storming, nuanced ensemble performance and the show is more than a match for the best of the West End. Lauren Lyle gives a strong, convincing turn as Diane and Oscar Porter-Brentford relays the vulnerability behind the bluster of Freddie very well. Pia Furtado's production is full of irreverent energy – from the way the ensemble throw school chairs during scene changes, to the points when the cast rap. It's often a riot. Though when the play's second half transports us to the fateful night seven years previously, it makes for very uncomfortable viewing.

But it's certainly not hard to watch the NYT's talented performers, who breathe a palpable vibrancy into this compelling play for our times.

Consensual runs at the Ambassador's Theatre until 2 December