Making its UK premiere at Birmingham Repertory Theatre, the stage version of Louise O'Neill's story about sexual assault and consent has a lot to live up to. The novel is a best-seller and award-winner, and the show previously enjoyed a sell-out season at Dublin's Abbey Theatre.
Asking For It is certainly provocative. When teenager Emma goes partying one night in her home town in Ireland's County Cork, high on drink and drugs, she sets out to have the time of her life. But events quickly spiral out of control and she is brutally attacked with photos of the incident shared on social media. Overnight Emma becomes a controversial figure about whom everyone feels they can make a judgement. Determined to fight her case, Emma's decision divides her friends, her neighbours, the media and even her family as the consequences of that fateful night and her decision to push for the truth have immense repercussions.
Adapted by Meadhbh McHugh in collaboration with director Annabelle Comyn, this is a hard-hitting production which doesn't hold back. There are graphic descriptions of the assault and we see the gradual disintegration of both Emma and her family in the face of a community unwilling to believe her or understand her determination to prove the men's guilt. It certainly makes for uncomfortable viewing.
Lauren Coe first played Emma when Asking For It premiered at The Everyman Theatre, Cork and has certainly made the role her own. She lives and breathes the troubled teenager, stepping into her shoes and bringing every nuance of her journey into the spotlight. Although her character isn't necessarily likeable, it would be hard not to feel agonised for Coe's Emma as a traumatised young girl facing such scrutiny and judgement.
And Coe has strong support. Dawn Bradfield is mesmerising as her mum, a woman trying to maintain a semblance of normality while falling apart. Simon O'Gorman plays the troubled father, uncertain of what to do in this situation and unable to connect with his daughter. Liam Heslin as brother Bryan appears to the only person in the family who tries to understand Emma but even he falls into the trap of putting his own reactions onto her. And the one friend who attempts to remain constant, childhood sweetheart Conor – played with sensitivity by Tiernan Messitt-Greene – is pushed away.
The starkness of the story is amplified by Paul O'Mahony's sets and Sinéad McKenna's lighting, as the drama unfolds before giant glass boxes that can obscure or clarify depending on the focus of the scene.
Asking For It is an unpalatable drama which leaves a bitter taste. Nevertheless, it is fearless theatre that focusses on an hugely topical current issue – with the Time's Up and #MeToo movements turning the spotlight on sexual exploitation of women and the question of consent, the show couldn't be more timely.