Mia is at boarding school. She has access to drugs. They are Martha’s. Henry is preparing for art college. He has access to alcohol. From Martha. Martha controls their lives. Martha is their mother.
That Face is a hard-hitting, intense and visceral dissection of children who become parents to their parents.
This is 20 year-old Polly Stenham’s first play.
Direction: Jeremy Herrin
Design: Mike Britton
Lighting: Natasha Chivers
Sound: Emma Laxton
Cast includes: Lindsay Duncan, Abigail Hood, Felicity Jones, Matt Smith, Catherine Steadman, Julian Wadham
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Dates in April
|Fri 20 Apr 2007||12:00am||Jerwood Theatre Upstairs|
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One of the most thrilling debuts for decades
Charles Spencer, The Telegraph, 26 April 2007
This is one of the most astonishing debuts I have seen in more than 30 years of theatre reviewing. Its author, Polly Stenham, a graduate of the Royal Court’s Young Writers Programme, is 20 now, just 19 when she wrote a play that sent me reeling into the night.
Not only is That Face shatteringly powerful, but it displays a dramatic dexterity and emotional intelligence writers twice her age would envy.
And, if all that weren’t enough, it marks a change of direction for the Court itself, belatedly acknowledging that the vast majority of its audience is middle-class, and might sometimes want to watch its own concerns reflected on stage rather than gawping voyeuristically at the godforsaken underclass.
I never expected to see a play at this address that began at a girls’ boarding school, and went on to portray people with posh accents and loads of money with rueful insight and a complete absence of chippy condemnation. Among much else, the play is a useful reminder that despair and misfortune are no respecters of an individual’s bank balance.
To describe the family at the centre of the play as dysfunctional would be an understatement. The father, a financial broker, has abandoned them for a new life in Hong Kong. Back in London, his former wife Martha is a chronic alcoholic, in such a bad way that her teenage son Henry, for whom she harbours incestuous feelings, has dropped out of school in order to care for her.
Matters reach a crisis when her younger daughter, Mia, is threatened with expulsion after a sadistic initiation ceremony in the dorm goes disastrously awry and the distant dad comes home to try to sort matters out.
If all this sounds grim, it often is, but there is also a dark wit in Stenham’s writing, and a tough, never overstated compassion for her characters.
The acting area is dominated by a double bed for the oedipal confrontations between drunken mother and her traumatised “co-dependent” son, and the power of the drama’s emotional climaxes is stuuning.
I’d guess that Stenham is well aware of such plays as The Vortex, A Streetcar Named Desire, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and Les Parents Terribles, all of which seem to have been influences here.
But the overriding impression is of a writer with her own sharp eye and ear for upper-middle-class manners and speech patterns. She also has an astonishing understanding of addiction and its devastating impact on others. I felt I’d already met the characters in this play at the Priory and AA meetings.
Jeremy Herrin directs a sharp, shocking production on Mike Britton’s spare design, around which the audience sits like spectators at a boxing match.
Lindsay Duncan plays Martha with a ravaged translucent beauty and that mixture of savage intensity and bleary vagueness that afflicts so many drunks. The scene in which she gives her own son a love-bite to match the one he’s received from a new girlfriend of whom she is viciously jealous is as shocking as it is illicitly thrilling.
Matt Smith is equally outstanding as her son, gradually laying bare the terrible price paid by a child who has become both a parent and a lover to his mother. His final scene, in which he is dressed in his mum’s silk nightdress because she’s destroyed all his clothes, is almost too raw and painful to watch.
There’s strong support from Felicity Jones as the plucky teenage sister, Catherine Steadman as her cruel schoolfriend, and Julian Wadham as the absentee father who finally accepts a measure of responsibility.
In every respect this is a remarkable and unforgettable piece of theatre.
4 stars 4 Stars
Sam Marlowe, The Times, 25 April 2007
Polly Stenham is just 20 years old and her debut play is a youthful work. Structurally it’s a little baggy; but it’s remarkably confident and exuberantly theatrical. Crammed with startling stage images, ferocious cruelty and pitch-black humour, it is insolent, audacious, witty and wise and Jeremy Herrin’s sparky production, with an excellent cast led by Lindsay Duncan, matches its swagger.
The Royal Court’s artistic director, Dominic Cooke, has declared his intention to present more work located in a middle-class milieu, and That Face fits the bill. Its no soft option, chillingly exposing the spiritual bankruptcy at the heart and hearth of many a well-to-do home.
At her expensive boarding school, Mia and her friend Izzy put a fellow pupil through a nasty initiation ceremony that goes badly wrong. Back at the family flat in London, Mias elder brother Henry, an aspiring artist, looks after their febrile, fragile mother Martha amid a chaos of prescription drugs, drink and emotional dependency. When Martha’s ex-husband, Hugh, returns from Hong Kong to help clean up the mess, all-out war breaks out among the fractured family.
Stenham intelligently evokes the close relationship between neglect and active abuse: Hugh’s paternal absenteeism is as damaging as Martha’s histrionics. Materially, Mia and Henry are well provided for; when it comes to stability and love, they are dangerously malnourished.
Effectively parentless, Mia becomes a ticking bomb of vengeance and misery, while Henry is father, lover, boy-child and confidant to Martha. He is tearing himself to pieces to satisfy his mothers demands a process mirrored in her ripping up of every garment he possesses when he spends a night not in her bed, but in Izzy’s. Like Nicky and Florence Lancaster in Coward’s The Vortex, they are bound together by an almost incestuous intensity. And Stenham smartly nails the way in which Marthas anxiety over her own fading star devours her childrens potential.
It’s a powerful study of emotional deprivation, no less forceful because its setting is well-heeled metropolis rather than sink estate.
Herrin’s production mines the grit in the gloss. Julian Wadham’s plummy Hugh regards his devastated family with detached despair, while Lindsay Duncan as Martha flirts, play-acts and poses, switching from little girl to matriarch to femme fatale. A bohemian beauty in decline, she is magnetic yet disgustingly narcissistic, seeing her children only as products of herself her son as her own dazzling reflection, her daughter an inconvenient excretion.
Felicity Jones as Mia mingles sassy bravado and a sadistic streak with poignant bewilderment, and Matt Smith’s Henry is a desperate prisoner in his mothers madhouse, forbidden to cross the threshold into manhood. He ends the play sobbing, urine-soaked, wearing Martha’s silk slip and jewellery, while Jones’s Mia tries to offer comfort.
It’s not just Mia and Henry who are children in crisis; the play is astutely suggestive of a society in which the siren song of youth is so seductive that even adults and parents refuse to grow up. A fizzing, glittering fireworks display of fresh talent.
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The First Night Feature: My Child
Mathew Amer, London Theatre Guide, 10th April 2007
I had never watched theatre in a tube train until last night. I don’t doubt you can, if you know where to look, but yesterday was a first for me. Miriam Buether’s design for Mike Bartlett’s My Child has turned the Royal Court Jerwood Theatre Downstairs into an enlarged underground train, complete with seats for some and squashed standing room for others, advertising screaming slogans at you and intimate relationships being played out before you, whether you want to see them or not. I [Matthew Amer] got aboard for a bumpy ride.
Bartlett is another of the Royal Court’s Young Writers Programme success stories to come through with his first professionally produced stage production as part of Dominic Cooke’s inaugural season. My Child is a brief but effective debut.
The plot revolves around an unnamed man, played by Ben Miles, who is gradually being phased out of his son’s life, seemingly because his ex-wife no longer wants to have to see him. As the play goes on he becomes more desperate before feeling forced to take action.
The setting and performance give us no real sense of time and space; lines, conversations and scenes blend and overlap in Sacha Wares’s production. This doesn’t matter, as it is the relationships that are the key to this play: Ben Miles’s Man talks to his dead parents, asking why they brought him up to be nice and polite, allowing people to walk over him; Lia Williams’s Woman the mother of Man’s son, referred to as Child has to parent both her child and her incontinent mother; the effect of Woman and new husband Karl’s parenting can clearly be seen in Child, who is violent, spoilt and values possessions highly.
It is Child who gets all the best lines in the play, being given licence to be brutally honest and unrestrained. Phrases like “I don’t like books, they’re gay” slip easily from the mouth of young actor Adam Arnold who is a delight as the boy caught in the middle.
Bartlett manages to present the clash of parents, who both want the best for their son, without clearly setting his argument for either side or being overtly judgmental, though Miles’s mild mannered, downtrodden Man is, at times, so weak that he draws sympathy. Wares’s production also includes one of the most realistic fights between two men seen in recent times, and when Man goes mad, the scenery takes a beating that reverberates around the confined space.
The actors, when not involved with the scene, slip into the background of audience/travellers, which heightens the feeling that the sad events playing out in front of the audience could be happening to any member of the public; we wouldn’t know them, but we still find their story gripping.