Alma Mater at the Almeida Theatre – review

The UK premiere production runs until 20 July

Justine Mitchell and Phoebe Campbell in a scene from Alma Mater at the Almeida Theatre
Justine Mitchell and Phoebe Campbell in Alma Mater, © Ali Wright

The opening of this new play by Kendal Feaver was abruptly cancelled at the end of last month when its leading actor Lia Williams had to withdraw due to illness. Justine Mitchell has stepped in with less than two weeks rehearsal – and it is a tribute both to her (script unobtrusively in hand) and to the strength of Feaver’s writing that the play is still utterly absorbing and very powerful.

Its theme is the vexed subject of sexual assault, and in particular the rape culture of microaggressions that allow attacks on women to be normalised and ignored. It’s written with passion, wit and a strong sense of understanding – acknowledging complexity, refusing to allow for easy solutions and satisfactions.

It is set in an Oxbridge-style college, that prides itself on its history and its arcane traditions. Mitchell plays Jo Mulligan, the first female head of this august institution, recruited to “diversify the student population” and determined to bring about change. Her first word is a four-letter one, as she recounts her own battles to win equality for women at the college a generation previously.

Yet when an earnest present-day student Nikki (Phoebe Campbell) reports the way her male peers are rating new arrivals for hotness, she dismisses her seriousness and encourages her to take herself and the world more lightly. Later, one of those freshers, Paige (Liv Hill) reports to Nikki that a fellow student has had “non-consensual sex” while she was comatose with drink. “That’s the textbook definition of rape,” Nikki says as Paige tries to suggest it was somehow her fault. When she takes the case to Jo, she once again fails to act, and events quickly spiral out of control.

Her desire to protect the college finds itself at odds with Nikki’s insistence that women have to start speaking out. The accused boy’s mother (a steely yet anxious Susannah Wise), an old-school chair of the governors (Nathaniel Parker), and lecturers taking different sides are soon in the mix. As is the haunting story of a woman raped and murdered on the college playing fields.

Feaver’s subtle writing never loses sight of the fact that once an assault happens – and there’s never any doubt about the truth of Paige’s statement – no-one can win. The men have the worse of the argument, but their concerns are not ignored in a swift succession of scenes, directed with clarity and careful control by Polly Findlay, that never lose sight of the messiness of human interaction or the unexpected turns that events can take. Yet Feaver’s essential message – that it’s an entire environment that has to change for issues of consent to be taken seriously – rings out loud and clear.

She is beautifully served by a cast who – despite the circumstances of the play’s arrival – tease out nuance from every moment.  Mitchell is extraordinary. An actress capable of being two things in a single instant, both irritating and intelligent, angry and profoundly sympathetic, she lends Jo a richness that illuminates the play. The subtle way she registers the moment she could have changed things is wonderful.

Campbell matches her in intensity; they make Nikki’s righteousness entirely believable. At the same time, Hill lends Paige just the right mixture of pain and confusion and a terrible desire just to return to normality, not to be at the centre of a storm. Nathalie Armin brings calm purpose to the figure of Jo’s friend and fellow academic, who finds herself on the opposing side of the argument, gently making the point that this is not simply a case of different generations of feminists reaching different conclusions, but a more general moral choice about the best way forward.

The arguments are sometimes dense, and the characters sit like chess pieces around Vicki Mortimer’s simple set of squared benches. Yet they are always fully alive in their humanity and their shifting positions. It’s both a challenging play and an important one – impressive even without the circumstances of its arrival.