Based on one of the United States’ most infamous sexual assault cases in recent memory – which cannot be named for legal reasons – Pollyanna Esse’s 20 Minutes of Action is a truly powerful piece of verbatim theatre. In the wake of the murder of Sarah Everard, when questions of sexual assault and women’s safety are at the forefront of the public consciousness, now is the perfect time for the play to make a return – and it does so in strong form, too.
As the audience enter the Assembly Roxy, the cast are seated on the front row, staring melancholically as though awaiting trial. Slowly they take to the stage as a short video is projected onto the backdrop that summarises the original case. Once concluded, the actors begin reciting the testimonies of the victim, the perpetrator, their families, and witnesses. While the stage may be empty save for some stools, that’s fine as the emphasis here is on the words and, frankly, they are harrowing.
Lasting only around 50 minutes, 20 Minutes boldly delves into an examination of women’s safety, rape culture, and patriarchal double standards. There’s certainly a lot of ground to cover and the performance quickly jumps around as it attempts to do so. It swiftly transitions from the courtroom, to news interviews, to public statements as The Perpetrator attempts to defend himself, while The Victim defiantly attempts to hold him accountable for his actions.
Unfortunately, these scene transitions do feel somewhat haphazard – primarily a result of stark technical blackouts and music cues that are all too jarring. Similarly, some lines are sadly delivered without the necessary gusto or pertinence to really close out a section as powerfully as intended. However, these are only minor issues as the cast are generally excellent.
Benjamin Sumrie, reprising the role of The Perpetrator from the original performance in 2019, is suitably smarmy as he attempts to exonerate himself and justify his disgustingly reduced sentence. Henry Mobius and Molly Reed give equally strong turns as his parents, coldly explaining how their son is the true victim here in a manner that is almost devoid of emotion (especially the father). Though initially surprising, it actually works perfectly for their characters. By contrast, Sophie Westwood delivers powerful, emotional speeches as the Victim’s Sister, maximising her time on stage to full effect and bringing a great deal of heart with it.
The true standout, however, is Fiona Forster who brings great deal of nuance to the role of The Victim. She bristles with anger and disgust whenever the perpetrator speaks, growing more and more frustrated as he cuts her off, though never backs down in her fight to reclaim the narrative that he has been allowed to create. Moreover, her final speech to “girls everywhere” is nothing short of an overwhelming tour-de-force.
20 Minutes of Action is certainly not an easy play to experience, especially come the final testimonies, but it’s an indubitably important one. Esse and the cast should be commended for their bravery in tackling issues that need to be discussed more openly in our society. While the piece requires some refinement in terms of technical delivery, and some of Esse’s directorial choices leave something to be desired, it is greatly elevated by a fantastic cast who handle the material with aplomb.