That Face, Polly Stenham’s multi-award winning, critically acclaimed play transfers to the West End for a ten week season.
That Face is a compelling portrayal of an affluent family in freefall. Mia is at boarding school. She has access to drugs. They are Martha’s. Henry has dropped out of school. He has access to alcohol. From Martha. Martha controls their lives. Martha is their mother. That Face is a powerful and darkly comic exploration of children who become parents to their parents.
Explosive and gobsmacking
The Royal Court premiere of That Face was supported by Jerwood New Playwrights.
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Dates in May
|Thu 1 May 2008||12:00am||Duke of York's Theatre, St. Martin's Lane WC2N 4BG|
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All tickets bought via the Royal Court theatre are £25
Charles Spencer, The Telegraph, Monday 12 May 2008
Into the West end, raw power intact
Polly Stenham wrote That Face when she was 19, saw it receive a shatteringly powerful production at the Royal Court when she was 20 and now, at 21, is the youngest dramatist to have a play performed in the West End for more than 40 years.
These must be sweet, heady and disorienting days for Ms Stenham. I hope those with the responsibility of handling her career are keeping her feet on the ground. When That Face opened at the Royal Court Theatre Upstairs in April 2007, I described it as one of the most astonishing dramatic debuts I had seen in more than 30 years of reviewing.
Watching this West End transfer, the play seems every bit as fresh, passionate and blackly comic the second time around.She has a prodigious talent and it needs to be cherished and nurtured.
Much of the comment on the play last year focused on the fact that it fulfilled the avowed intent of the Royal Court’s artistic director Dominic Cooke to put on more plays that reflected the lives of his predominantly middle-class audience. Bad things don’t only happen to the underclass living on state benefits in hellish council blocks. Posh people have their moments of extremity, pain and dysfunction too.
Although influenced by such plays as Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire, Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and Noel Coward’s The Vortex, Stenham makes this story of suffocating mother-love and addiction entirely her own.
The dialogue of her privileged, privately educated teenagers is bang on the money, her portrayal of a cruel dormitory initiation ceremony at a girls boarding school horribly persuasive, while her account of a wealthy family in terminal meltdown has a terrifying authenticity. I have met desperate middle-class people almost exactly like those Stenham portrays during my own spell in the Priory and at subsequent meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous.
The young dramatist has been blessed with a blazing, no-holds barred production by Jeremy Herrin, with a set dominated by a rumpled double bed in which the drink and drug-addled Martha plays chilling Oedipal games with the teenage son who has dropped out of school to become her traumatised, emotionally dependent carer.
Lindsay Duncan, staggering around the stage in her night-dress with a bottle in her hand and a fag in her mouth, brings a raddled glamour and a predatory sexuality to Martha, with her pale skin and knack for the devastating slurred put-down. The intimacy of her scenes with her troubled son Henry are disturbingly incestuous and the jealous moment when she gives the boy she calls her “Russian soldier” a love-bite to match the one he has recently received from a girl of his own age creates a disturbing thrill. But there is humour in this superb performance too, most noticeably in the hilarious scene when Martha tries to chat up the speaking clock.
Matt Smith is outstanding as the 18-year-old Henry, who is so pitiably desperate to save his mother from herself – his final scene of emotional collapse is shattering in its intensity. There is strong support, too, from Julian Wadham as the businessman father whose culpable absence has allowed the family’s breakdown to fester; from Hannah Murray as the daughter on the verge of expulsion from her posh school, and Catherine Steadman as her cruel friend.
All of which might sound excessively grim. The startling paradox of That Face, however, is that there is so much vigour in the writing, so much passion in the playing, that one leaves the theatre feeling strangely exhilarated.4 stars Michael Billington, The Guardian, Monday 12 May 2008
First Night: Emotional power in the mother of all debuts
Forget all the hype about Polly Stenham, at 21, being the youngest West End debutant since Christopher Hampton.
What matters is that her 90-minute play, first seen at the Royal Court Theatre, has a quality of emotional desperation one more often associates with mature American dramatists like Tennessee Williams and Edward Albee than with cool young Brits. This is also one of the first English-language plays I can recall to deal explicitly with mother-son interest. At the centre of the action lies a bed patently occupied by the alcoholic, pill-popping Martha and her 18-year-old son, Henry. Abandoned by her Hong Kong-based ex-husband, Martha looks to Henry to be a mixture of lover, nurse and playmate. The threatened expulsion of daughter Mia from her posh school for complicity in torturing and drugging a classmate sends the childrens father, Hugh, scuttling home to sort out one of the worst family messes since those troubles in Sophoclean Thebes.
Stenham strikes me as stronger on the symptoms of moral chaos than its causes. She never makes fully clear what has turned Martha into a psychological wreck. Lurking is an assumption that Hugh, who abandoned Martha for a Chinese mistress, is somehow the guilty party. But since the accusations come from Martha, at best an unreliable witness, I wasn’t sure whether Stenham was attacking the destruction of the nuclear family or a class system that turns women like Martha into victims.
Stenham’s god-given gift, however, is an ability to communicate pain and longing. The most moving aspect of the play is Martha’s morbid fixation with her son. Lindsay Duncan brings to the role a blanched beauty and dreamy sensuality so that when, gazing at the bed, she says I promise never again, you know it is a vow she will never keep. Duncans brilliance is matched by Matt Smith whose hapless Henry is both one of those whom Oedipus wrecks and a residual snob who greets his returning father with you reek of duty-free. Jeremy Herrins admirably Spartan production, deftly designed by Mike Britton, contains highly accomplished performances from Hannah Murray as the casually sadistic Mia and Julian Wadham as the defective dad.
4 stars Nicholas de Jongh, Evening Standard, Monday 12 May 2008
h2. Spellbinding tale of mother love
A teenage boy, attired in a womans night-dress, a necklace and excessive lipstick, crouches by a bed on which his drunken mother sprawls. She is lost to the psycho-drama of her son, who is going out of his mind as surely as she has already gone from hers. His father and sister stand watching, like impassive spectators at a street accident. Voice, pitched screaming distress, limbs and nerves jangling, the boy rages, begs and accuses. Thanks to the award-winning author, 21-year-old Polly Stenham, and Matt Smith’s astonishing coup de theatre as the teenage Henry, guilty feelings are expressed with devastating impact.
This scene marks the climax and resolution of Miss Stenhams That Face, premiered at the Royal Court, and which won her the Evening Standard’s Most Promising Playwright award last year. It generates such emotional power because it faces up unflinchingly to the consequences of a mother/son incestuous bond. This is the first play on the subject by an English author since Noel Coward’s more oblique treatment in The Vortex. It has the strange, uncomfortable ring of truth about it. Incest becomes the defining symptom of a rich, privileged, middle-class family in crisis and dysfunctional collapse.
The crisis is precipitated when Henry’s demure but under-characterised sister Mia (Hannah Murray) leads a school dormitory initiation ceremony, which with the aid of her mothers pilfered Valium requires the victims hospitalisation. Julian Wadham’s bored, introverted father is called home from the Far East and a new marriage to deal with the family he would prefer to forget.
Although the dormitory incident beggars belief, betraying Stenhams immaturity, she handles the incest theme with assurance. In Jeremy Herrin’s powerful, expressionistic production, a centre-stage bed is the single stage property. Here lies Henry’s mother, Lindsay Duncan’s Martha, a glazed alcoholic and blanched, petulant blonde, with something of several Tennessee Williams heroines about her.
In spellbinding scenes that steer a wavering line between black comedy and a drama of erotic possessiveness, the superlative, mocking Duncan, keeps Smith’s protective, guilt-laden Henry to heel and in bed, until he escapes for a first night with a girl. Marthas jealous responses to her sons bid for freedom, comic and dreadful, seal their fates. Matt Smith’s virtuoso performance makes it clear that Henry’s life rather than Martha’s has been ruined. 4 stars Benedict Nightingale, The Times, Monday 12 May 2008
The raging of oedipal agony
Towards the end of Noel Coward’s The Vortex – still ensconced at the Apollo, with Felicity Kendall still tumbling into the maelstrom of the title – a callow 24-year-old ends up yelling at his louche mum: “Your’e going to be my mother for once, its time I had one before I go over the edge altogether”. He might be speaking for the teenager at the centre of the play Polly Stenham wrote when, at 19, she was five years younger than the Coward of The Vortex. The differences are that Henry, as hes called, is more parent than son to his impossible mother and that he and his sister are victims of a neglectful father too.
That Face has its prolix and its overstated moments, but it impressed everyone when it launched Stenham’s career at the Royal Courts Theatre Upstairs last year. With reason too, since it catches the confusions of an Ab Fab-style family thats clearly been disintegrating since the father, Julian Wadham’s Hugh, remarried and absconded to Hong Kong.
Hannah Murray’s Mia, his daughter, faces expulsion from school after dorm initiation rites left a 13-year-old in a coma. And Lindsay Duncan’s Martha, his first wife, trails woozily round her chaotic bedroom, flirting with the telephone talking clock, making incestuous passes at Henry and cutting up his clothes when she suspects he’s been unfaithful.
Is it plausible that an 18-year-old would ditch his academic prospects to look after his awful mother explaining, “Shes my life”? Well, Matt Smith has the emotional intensity to make you buy it, sometimes calling her “Mummy” and sometimes “Martha”; sometimes berating her and sometimes accepting her retchy kisses; and always trying to get her into rehab. This gangling, gawky actor gives a performance to match the excellent Duncan, who is very much the self-indulgent slattern and yet, faced with the chance to stop Henry toppling into the abyss, finds something residually maternal inside herself.
Certainly Stenham comes up with a denouement that, this being 2008, outdoes The Vortex for rawness. The expletives fly as Smith’s Henry, dramatising his oedipal agonies by wearing his mothers nightie, rages at his father, his mother, his life, everything. And the conclusion? A surprisingly conservative one, I think. Even highly sophisticated adolescents need their parents. Sane, sensible parents. Two of them.