trio of perps

Darragh Shannon's Dylan and Sean played by Seán Doyle with gangleader Paul, played by Shane Lennon with Lauren Coe's Emma behind, unaware of what is about to happen. Pictures: Jed Niezgoda

Asking for it

Birmingham Rep


Rape. The very word is unsettling, chilling. The most heinous assault on a fellow human being imaginable and yet a crime which has developed a life, a culture of its own.

Kill someone and the only real debate is whether it is murder or manslaughter; a gang commit a robbery and was it them or not is all there is to decide; attack someone in the street, nick a car, pick a pocket . . . was it them that did it m’lud or not.

But rape . . . what was she wearing, was she flirting, is she promiscuous, has she had loads of boyfriends, does she sleep around, did she lead him on, did she actually say no or definitely tell him to stop?

No one tells the bloke whose car is stolen it is his own fault for having a desirable, perhaps even flash car, or the assault victim it is his own fault for looking at his attacker in a funny way, but rape victims – what did they do to bring it upon themselves?

Meadhbh McHugh’s adaptation, along with director Annabelle Comyn, of Louise O’Neill’s disturbing 2015 novel chronicles the gang rape of an 18-year-old schoolgirl in Ballinatoom, a small town in West Cork. It is set in Ireland, but it could just as easily be a village in Warwickshire, or Kansas, or . . . Barcelona.

This UK premiere is not an easy watch, it is not meant to be, this is a play to endure not enjoy, a play to add to the debate, to chronicle not so much the rape, although it manages that in a voiceover with flashing images in graphic detail, but the aftermath.


Coming of age, sixth form hormones in full flow

The gang rape was by the captain of the GAA football team and two of his teammates at a party to celebrate winning a big game. The trio posted graphic images of the naked, unconscious girl and their depraved acts on social media, bragging about their exploits. Open and shut . . . except the trio, football heroes, pleaded not guilty and the town took their side and turned against the girl.

The title perhaps gives an idea of the rumours, the tittle tattle in the pubs and the market place, with the local paper stoking the flames, and O‘Neill’s novel cleverly makes the victim, Emma, a not particularly likeable young woman.

It is a superb performance from Lauren Coe. Emma is offhand with her mother and father, self-obsessed, pretty – and she knows it – wears her tops low, flirts, and is hardly nice to her friends, but they stick with her because she is the school’s it girl, the leader of the pack.

She is a poster girl on billboards from last year’s big football party, the GAA team being the biggest thing in the town, she projects and protects her image and enjoys being lusted after by most of the boys in school.

And on the night when it all went wrong, she had been drinking and taking drugs. Her first sexual encounter was with Paul (Shane Lennon) the older, confident team captain. Emma didn’t say no . . . but then she didn’t say yes either.

That was one she decided to put down to experience but when teammates, who are boys from Emma’s year at school, Sean (Seán Doyle) and Dylan (Darragh Shannon) burst into the bedroom, the experience turns nasty. Another pill, three against one and oblivion, finally dumped half naked and unconscious on her own doorstep, with no memory of what happened until she sees, as does most of the town, the shocking images on Facebook – social media being used these days as another instrument of torture.

As a sideline we have a fine performance from Venetia Bowe as Zoë, a quiet girl, shunning attention from boys. We discover she had recently been raped by a classmate, but it was dismissed by Emma who told her to keep quiet, forget about it, that would be the best for her, best for everyone.  A case of it only matter when it happens to you, perhaps?


Laptops, tablets, mobiles . . . the window to social media and a world where degradation and humiliation can be cruelly displayed for all to see

There is also a fine performance from her one real friend, a friend from childhood, Conor played by Tiernan Messitt-Greene, he is desperate to help but unsure how, backing off when she tries to kiss him. It might have been something he dreamed of before, but now? He is overwhelmed, afraid of . . . the unknown, the unspoken, who knows? He needs time but she reads the worst into it. She sees herself as spoiled goods, damaged, he doesn't want her any more - no one will want her, and she screams for him to leave.

The interval brought a respite for a shell-shocked audience. It was too much for a few who did not return. The debate was there. By dressing as she did, drinking and taking ecstasy, going to a bedroom with an older boy whose thoughts were never going to rise above his groin – was she asking for it?

An argument that was surely lost when it became a team game, yet the debate would still carry on. When the police became involved the rumours started that she was promiscuous, with many in the town it was almost as if the three lads, who were “good boys”, were the real victims, somehow they were in the wrong place at the wrong time, with the wrong girl.

The second act is all in Emma’s family kitchen which has become not just the centre but Emma’s only world. There is a legal argument raging as to whether the crucial photographs could be used in evidence but a year on the boys have now been charged. That is hardly the end of it though. It could still be two years before the case comes to court and then the defence will pick apart every relationship, every text and every detail of Emma’s life hoping to show she was . . . well, asking for it.

Emma now stays at home, stays in the house, stays in her own mind, she is no longer part of the unfolding drama, it is as if the gang rape has made her a none person, small and insignificant on stage, pleading for her sleeping pills kept locked away by her Mam, a lovely performance by Dawn Bradfield.

Mam is almost in denial, yet in the final scenes we start to see the cracks, the strain on the family, the doubts. Does she really believe her daughter was not a willing participant, or at the very least didn’t bring it on herself?

Simon O’Gorman as Dad, shows almost disdain, blaming his wife for his daughter’s promiscuity with no proof she was other than an unaccredited quote in the newspaper. He hardly acknowledges Emma, ashamed of her and the shame he thinks she has brought on him, unable to face her.


Dawn Bradfield as Mam, Liam Heslin as Bryan and Simon O'Gorman as Dad - a family in turmoil

In all honesty, since the decision to charge the boys, he seems more concerned with customers leaving his bank, including Paul’s father, who owns half the town and has by far the biggest account, than he is for his almost disowned daughter.

Then there is Bryan, Emma’s older brother, played with real emotion by Liam Heslin, the only one to really support Emma to the end, yet even there, there is a hint that is partly for his own benefit, to stop the sneers and comments he gets in the pubs and perhaps even a touch of revenge, his relationship with Jen, Sean’s sister, another victim of the town’s one-sided polarisation.

The final family clash becomes a shouting match, with Emma now a vulnerable, broken girl, just wanting her father, to say he believes her, that her family are with her, they will protect her and stand by her, fight for her, fight for justice.

We end with Emma, alone in her underclothes, her life stolen away at 18, crying in despair that her life now belongs to the three boys, belongs to them as if they had  branded her like cattle.

It is an end that leaves you empty. It might have been hard to have empathy with any character, until you start to feel for the now broken Emma, little more than a child, with her life, her dreams, her future, her mind shattered; your emotions have been kept intentionally at arm’s length, yet you are still emotionally drained.

O’Neill does not take sides, she sets out the argument and adds a dramatic end. Her Emma is a good time girl, but does that mean she deserves what happened?


Paul O'Mahony's clever set which with atmospheric lighting serves as video screen and a window to glimpse into a teen party

Paul O’Mahony’s design and Sinéad McKenna’s lighting combine to give a stark set, a huge monolithic block of Perspex walls with doorways and sections that slide in and out to create a school, a house party and Emma’s kitchen. Behind the misted walls we see the hormone fuelled teen boys and the not quite so innocent girls at the party. Admirable technical stagecraft with music and sound from Philip Stewart which helps retain interest throughout.

We never see the attacks, the play relies on voiceovers and flashing images (Jack Phelan) projected on to the stage filling monolith of Perspex. By the second act much of Emma’s dialogue is now her thoughts through voiceovers. She has retreated into herself.

As a piece of theatre it is perhaps too long, a good 20 minutes could go without being missed, and perhaps we have messages in both acts emphasised a little too much. For instance, we know that the thoughts of teenage boys rarely stray above the waist, that talk of sex and lust fuel their thoughts, that teen girls like boys to like them, so perhaps that message could be shorter, we don’t need to be told over and over.

But that is a thought as a theatre critic, and this is not conventional theatre. This is provocative drama. It is a play which challenges us. It does not want us to become engaged, does not want our emotional involvement, does not want us to take characters to heart. We are given the role of observers, almost a jury as the case is laid out before us.

We are left with no verdict, no answers, no hint of what the future holds for Emma or her family. It is not entertainment, not enjoyable or pleasant to watch. It is uncomfortable and depressing – yet it is important and as powerful a piece of theatre as you are likely to see this year. Here words speak louder than pictures and the images those words create and the messages they send will not easily go away. Something teenagers . . . and their parents should see.  To 15-02-20.

Roger Clarke


In 2018 there were 58,657cases of rape reported to police in England and Wales which is a rape every nine minutes, but  it is officially estimated that only 15 per cent or rapes are reported which, if accurate, would put the actual figure at about 391,000 rapes a year, or a rape committed every 80 seconds of every hour of every day, seven days a week.

In 2018 just 1.7 per cent of reported rapes resulted in a charge or summons. 

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