Four Minutes Twelve Seconds (Trafalgar Studios)

James Fritz’s Olivier Award-nominated play is revived following its acclaimed run at Hampstead Downstairs last year

John McGuiness
John McGuiness
© Ikin Yum

Questions of consent are pressing. In Violence & Son, a teenage boy overstepped the mark, missing a ‘no’ in the heat of the moment. Evan Placey’s Consensual prodded at the legal age of consent. On television too: BBC3 ran Is This Rape? – a drama designed to exploit that gray area that’s neither a definite yes nor a definite no.

Seventeen-year-old Jack has been beaten up by his girlfriend’s older brother, after a video of the two teenagers having sex – 4 minutes and 12 seconds long – wound up online. Within a week, it’s been watched by half a million people. Jack swears he didn’t upload it, didn’t even show it to anyone else, but someone must have done. Worse: their sex is forceful, his hand over her mouth. Cara claims it was forced.

We never see the video to judge for ourselves. In fact, we never even meet Jack. All of this comes second-hand, sometimes third-hand, as Jack’s parents Di (Kate Maravan) and David (Jonathan McGuinness) try to work out what really took place. They’re initially defensive of their son, but the more Di, in particular, digs into things, the more the scales fall from her eyes. What does a mother do in that situation? Should she stand up for her son or for her sex?

James Fritz‘s tricksy four-hander was nominated for an Olivier Award last year and it’s compelling and complex, even if his controlled release of information is, at times, contrived.

He keeps us on our toes, for sure, forcing us to figure out for ourselves not just what went on in Jack’s bedroom, but also how the video appeared online. The ambiguity works wonders: our heads turn over the ethics of every conceivable combination. As the play goes on, however, Fritz lets the conundrums overtake his characters, stretching credibility for the sake of a slippery scenario. Di and David both behave in ways that no good parent would – and they are good parents, that’s partly the point.

But it’s also a play about technology; one that asks whether teenagers have changed out of all recognition – Di and David have racy photos of their own in the loft – and whether images can ever be anything other than ambiguous. Where Di sees sexual assault, David sees two teens trying to keep quiet during rough sex. Janet Bird‘s canny design makes the point eloquently: a pattern of pixel – red, blue and green dots – that plays tricks on our eyes.

Anna Ledwich‘s snappy staging lets the twists and turns land, echoing the ambiguity with a succession of reversals. Maravan, catching that very particular Croydon camp, is superb as the mother in a bind, desperate and desolate. McGuinness is gently deceitful, likeable in spite of it all, and Ria Zmitrowicz is superb as Cara – so staunch, yet so vulnerable.

Four Minutes Twelve Seconds runs at the Trafalgar Studios until 5th December.