Oxford play asks questions about consensual sex
Not Saying Yes
If This Is Normal at the Old Fire Station, Oxford, on Thursday, April 21. Review by Jon Lewis
Helena Jackson’s production of Lucy Danser’s play If This Is Normal, from feminist company Chatback Theatre, asks questions about the issue of consent during sex. The characters concerned are both sympathetic – a young and inexperienced Muslim man of Pakistani heritage, Madani (Isambard Rawbone) and a white working-class school leaver, Alex (Aoife Smyth), boyfriend and girlfriend for a few months and excited about their first time.
Neither of them knows what they are meant to be doing. Madani’s imam has provided no advice, and his mentor at his boxing gym only suggests using contraception. Because the relationship has been kept under the radar, Madani has not asked consulted his younger, but sexually experienced sister Maryam (Zarima McDermott), primarily because Alex is her best friend at school. Alex herself has low self-esteem and has the unwanted baggage of being told by Maryam that she’s likely to marry the first guy she sleeps with. From a poor family, dressing in bright pink clothes, Alex thinks of herself as unacademic but gobby, unsettled because her family moved from south of the river to Kilburn in north London. She hasn’t told her parents about being Madani’s girlfriend.
Danser’s characters use direct address to the audience and asides in telling their stories. Both Madani and Alex signposted to each other in advance they were going to have sex.
The audience hears about the experience the next morning from Madani, looking happy, and Alex, seeming to be worried. He thinks he’s done everything right, getting his cues from rom coms and bringing her toast in the morning. The problem is that whilst Alex took off her clothes and got into bed with him, she was never explicit in saying to him that he could start having sex. She believes she did not consent to what happened.
The subsequent fall-out affects all three, and especially the way Maryam thinks of her brother. Danser’s tightly constructed plot is gripping. It’s suggested there was no malicious intent from Madani, and no criminal act committed. The cast, who first performed the play at the Edinburgh Fringe before the pandemic, is excellent.