Once upon a time in what feels like another country, three children play hide and seek. Fifteen year old Elliott wears a crown, thirteen year old Maggie wraps herself in silk and little Finn draws on the walls. Together they watch a mobile phone intensely, willing it to come to life. Whose call are they waiting for and why are they home alone?
As hilarious as it is heartbreaking, Tusk Tusk, Polly Stenham’s second play, is a tale of family ties as an uncertain future circles.
Contains strobe lighting
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Dates in March
|Sat 28 Mar 2009||7:45pm||Jerwood Theatre Upstairs|
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Please note that Tusk Tusk is currently sold out.
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4 stars The Independent
Youngsters carry off remarkable stage debuts
It’s nearly two years since Polly Stenham made a sensational playwriting debut with That Face in the Royal Court’s upstairs studio, a piece about a dysfunctional middle class family, with a drunken mother who made Jocasta look like a wilting violet, that won every “most promising” award going and transferred, admittedly with limited success, to the West End.
The difficult second play syndrome has not proved a curse. Tusk Tusk is another coruscating, highly skilled piece of work, with an equally disastrous maternal figure who has gone missing. The title is an oblique reference to that favourite nursery song “Nellie the Elephant” who packed her bags and said goodbye to the circus. Her children have to fend for themselves on £200 in the new apartment, surrounded by packing cases, adopting a tribal lifestyle that has elements of Lord of the Flies and Where the Wild Things Are.
Again, Stenham reveals a natural talent sensibly dedicated to telling what she knows about. 15-year-old Eliot and 14-year-old Maggie- played, in remarkable stage debuts, by 17-year-old Toby Regbo and 16-year-old Bel Powley (whose sweet face you’ll recognise from the recent TV Little Dorrit)- are holed up with their seven-year-old brother Finn (nine-year-old Finn Bennett, no less than extraordinary).
Finn, like Maurice Sendak’s Max in Wild Things is always being sent to bed with his jungle fantasies, while Eliot is blowing the loot on alcohol and trying to impress a new girlfriend Georgia Groome as Cassie- and Maggie is pretending to be a Polish nanny when the upstairs neighbour shouts through complaints about the noise.
Things turn a bit raw with Finn suffering a bad accident and the stage is transformed by designer Robert Innes Hopkins into a birthday party environment that is invaded by well meaning friends Katie and Roland (Caroline Harker and Tom Beard). It turns out Roland was more than just friendly with Mum who’s some sort of psychotic, drug-addled man magnet. Dad died of cancer, social workers are probably on red alert.
Mum has been missing for a week, so the situation has not yet spiralled out of control into the realms of implausibility, though Stenham is not too worried by that consideration in her conclusion. The point is she has found a tone both authentic and powerfully demotic for these mixed-up brats- yes, you do want to bang their silly spoilt heads together- and devised a scenario that keeps the mawkish poetry intact.
She’s very good at controlling the release of information and sustaining dramatic tension, and her director Jeremy Herrin has not only cast the play brilliantly, he’s also proved again as he has done with David Hare and T S Eliot that he knows how to find the proper rhythm for stage dialogue and maintain that fluency; there’s a terrific soundtrack of barbaric indie rock by Emma Laxton to help him along.
It’s a big ask of the young actors to complete the journey Finn has constructed a cardboard boat, Max, by the end but they carry it off superbly, and there’s nothing but a feeling of both dread and concern as the new day dawns and the sun dapples the brickwork in the outside garden.
Michael Coveney, 2 April 2009
4 stars Evening Standard
Shocking secrets in Tusk, Tusk
What a remarkable, bright young thing Polly Stenham is! After her precocious debut at 19, with the award-winning That Face, this second play confirms a startling, theatrical promise, though it returns to the terrain of the first.
Again teenagers from affluent backgrounds are exploited or deserted by inadequate, neglectful parents disturbed mothers in particular. Again Stenham shows a flair for shock-tactics – quite psychologically convincing ones too. Awful burdens are born by unfortunate children. The humour turns dark.
Tusk Tusks materfamilias has gone missing, in contrast to the daughter-loathing mother in That Face who took to excessive alcohol and sex with her adolescent son. Her three offspring – seven-year-old Finn, played by the astonishingly assured Finn Bennett, Toby Regbos superb Eliot, aged almost 16 and his slightly younger sister, Bel Powleys worldly Maggie – are discovered in a smart, open-plan living room. Loads of packing cases are haphazardly scattered around. A kitchen sink, that long-lost, almost mythical Royal Court appendage, forms part of an opulent unit, in which nothing is stored apart from rows of home-made jam. And apparently nothing can be cooked
The kids subsist on Chinese take-aways, prawn-crackers and cider. An air of mystery and unease engulfs them. Jeremy Herrins assured, dynamically acted production intensifies the mood. Why is there no concern about their mothers absence? Something crucial is concealed and Stenham never properly explains why.
Meanwhile rubbish piles up and up. Finn, who decorates himself in stripes of lipstick, sleeps under a table. They all stay awake at night and slumber by day. When Eliot disappears one morning, only to bring back a girl – whom Maggie wittily dismisses as if she were a hired tart – it grows clear the teen-agers prefer self-contained closeness and evasion of home-truths.
There are faint but distinct echoes of William Goldings Lord of the Flies (Eliots red Indian call in particular) and Ian McEwans The Cement Garden, where kids on their own turn anything from primitive to strangely alienated. Eliot and Maggie talk cool, in sharp, sophisticated blasts of jaunty humour and cynicism – they seem a bit old for their tender years. And adorable Finn sometimes sounds as if his mind were twice as old as his actual years. It is only when he is cut by glass and obviously needs medical aid that Stenham lets slip the plays secret, revealing just what the kids fear if they hand themselves over to authority. The revelation is not that surprising and Stenham, despite engendering bleak amusement from the spectacle of these kids anarchically making do, fails to develop a powerful enough plot-line. It is only after two adults – friends of the mother – make a late, surprise appearance that Tusk Tusk takes wing.
Thanks to the closing scene, when vituperative Eliot turns upon his mothers secret, two-timing lover – and Maggie makes an unbelievable confession, Stenham manages to brings this dark comedy of wrecked family relations to a riveting conclusion.
By Nicholas de Jongh, 02.04.09
4 stars Daily Telegraph
There is laughter amid the desolation in Polly Stenham’s new play Tusk Tusk at the Royal Court.
Polly Stenham caused a theatrical sensation with her first play, That Face, written when she was just 19. It transferred from the Royal Court to the West End and won her a fistful of awards.
How do you follow that? Second plays, like second albums and second novels, are notoriously difficult, but Stenham, now a grand old lady of 22, has another success on her hands with Tusk Tusk. You could argue that she isn’t exactly breaking new ground. That Face dealt with two teenage children attempting to cope with an alcoholic, manic-depressive mother.
In Tusk Tusk the situation is even bleaker.
A family of three children has just moved into a new London flat. Their father is long gone, while their mentally unstable mother has a habit of going Awol.
This time it seems to be more serious than usual. By the start of the second act she has been gone for more than a week and her three children, Eliot, who turns 16 in the course of the play, Maggie, 14, and young Finn, seven, are all nearing the end of their rope as they await her return.
As in Stenham’s first play, these aren’t sink estate kids but middle-class children with posh accents. Deprivation and mental illness, the dramatist insists, aren’t the exclusive preserve of the underclass.
Considering the bleak subject matter Tusk Tusk is often remarkably funny, as well as exceptionally touching.
The two older kids have a lovely joshing relationship founded on palpable affection, and both of them deeply love their younger brother, who is so engagingly played by the child actor Finn Bennett that one worries dreadfully about him throughout the play and wants to take him home at the end.
And it is Finn who presents the older children, sleeping through the day, going out at night, and subsisting on a diet of takeaway Chinese and crisps, with their big problem.
They know they are already on an “at risk” list. If they report their mother’s absence they will be taken into care and split up. The only way to stay together is to fend for themselves and hope for their mother’s eventual return.
Jeremy Herrin directs a persuasive and gripping production and the acting by the two teenage leads, both making their professional stage debut, is outstanding.
They bring out every ounce of sarky humour in Stenham’s script, but also capture a sense of growing desperation that leads to moments of cruelty.
Bel Powley as Maggie, husky voiced and living with a terrible secret, is wonderfully funny as she mocks her brother’s new girlfriend, and heart-rending in her mounting misery, while Toby Regbo as her older brother movingly captures the terrible strain of a child forced to become the head of his family.
There are some neat plot developments and Stenham’s ability to move in an instant from laughter to utter desolation marks her out as a dramatist of distinction though I hope she will move on to fresh territory in her third play.
Charles Spencer, 02 Apr 2009
Tusk Tusk at Royal Court Theatre Upstairs
This is the second play from the 21-year-old Polly Stenham, and the second time that she’s treated the Home Alone theme. All right, we did meet the mother in her award-winning That Face, but, since she was a demented alcoholic abandoned by her husband, her floundering 18-year-son had to parent her. In Tusk Tusk Dad is dead, Mum is absent throughout, and 15-year-old Eliot and 14-year-old Maggie have to look after themselves and seven-year-old Finn in a new, half-furnished London flat.
Let me instantly report that Stenham hasn’t succumbed to the dreaded second play syndrome. Indeed, that she’s dealing with the same subject leaves you feeling that she’s doing something interesting, which is creatively battling matters of vital concern to her. And though the first half of Tusk Tusk can drag a bit, her talent is unmissable. By the end you’ll be far more disturbed and moved than you could ever be by the cute doings of a phalanx of Macaulay Culkins.
At first the feel is largely comical. Packing cases are everywhere. Bel Powley’s Maggie – a stunning performance, this – leaps on them after seeing a mouse. Toby Regbo’s finely observed Eliot makes teenage cracks about her menstrual problems. He and Finn Bennett’s excellent Finn dress up as “metrosexual warriors”, streaking their faces with Mum’s lipstick, and Finn naughtily ladles paint round her bedroom. Is the play becoming a benign Lord of the Flies? Maybe, but freedom and fun soon evolve into fear and, in Eliot’s case, desperation.
Sleep becomes a day and not a night affair, sometimes occurring beneath the kitchen table. With money running out, breakfast means egg-and-bacon crisps. Everyone, including a girl Eliot has picked up outside, tries to celebrate his 16th birthday, but it’s the socks drooping over the sink and not the balloons and cake you notice. An increasingly disturbed Finn takes a fall that leaves him gashed, but the ambulance cant be called, in case he’s taken into care. Eliot becomes the family’s crazily protective jailer, striking Finn, throwing Maggie to the floor, banishing them to the basement.
I won’t reveal how it ends, only say that Stenham’s skill is evident in things both big (her gradual revelation of Mum’s clearly terrible problems) and small (a girlfriend from a council block whose doughty realism puts events in this chaotic flat into perspective). I can’t wait until her third play. And I don’t care if it too takes a hard look at Eliot’s forlorn belief that family is suffering for each other and suffering each other.
Benedict Nightingale, 03/04/09
4 stars The Guardian
The second play, they say, is the hardest. But Polly Stenham, having won golden opinions for That Face, with its incestuous mother-son relationship, has come up with another scorching study in emotional desperation.
Again we have a dysfunctional family, damaged children and a bingeing mother. The big difference this time is that we never see the mother, who has left her three offspring to their own anarchic devices in a London flat.
Stenham’s play is an eloquent study in escalating anxiety. At first, 15-year-old Eliot, 14-year-old Maggie, and their seven-year-old brother Finn seem able to cope with their mother’s defection. Eliot makes brief sorties into the outside world to buy food and date a girl, while Finn plays Maurice Sendak comic-book games.
But soon it becomes clear that the three kids are hopelessly entrapped. They are dependent on the phonecall from the mum that never comes. At the same time, they know that once they advertise their plight they will be split up and taken into care.
Behind the play, I sense an unhealed private wound. But, far from being unrelieved gloom, the play offers a stoic tribute to sibling resilience. It also benefits hugely from breaking the 90-minute rule and offering a second act: only by charting the passage of time, and introducing new characters, does Stenham reveal the full extent of the kids’ filial need and even elicit a measure of sympathy for the suicide-prone mother.
It adds to the tension that, in Jeremy Herrin’s fine production, the key parts are played by three astonishing actors who look exactly the right age: Toby Regbo as the controlling Eliot, Bel Powley as the insubordinate Maggie, and Finn Bennett as the mischievous youngster.
Not since Peter Panhave I seen a play so much about the crying need for mother love. I only hope that Stenham, having exorcised her demons, one day breaks out of the jagged family circle.
Michael Billington, 2 April 2009
4 stars The Financial Times
Polly Stenham made waves with her first play, That Face. Written when she was just 19, it premiered to great reviews, won awards and transferred to London’s West End. Her second deals with similar territory – a dysfunctional family, absent parents, mental illness, children trying to cope – but far from feeling like a rehash, Tusk Tusk is a cracking confirmation of Stenhams talent (she is still only 22).
If anything, I prefer this gripping, witty, sad play to her first. And it is given a superb production by Jeremy Herrin, who draws astonishing performances from the young cast (all of whom are under 20).
We meet Eliot (15), Maggie (14) and Finn (7), holed up in a basement flat with piles of removal boxes and only jam to eat. They have recently moved in along with their mother. But she has gone missing and as the play progresses we learn why this is a regular occurrence. Should they wait for her to come back or get help? Maggie, who is practical, wants to tell somebody; Eliot is terrified that if they do, they will be split up. He also has the romantic notion that she will come back for his 16th birthday.
As they wait, fight and fend off callers, Stenham explores themes of responsibility, of growing up, of loyalty and love. The play has echoes of classic works -Peter Pan and Lord of the Flies among them – as it portrays the childrens feral life, but Stenham has her own style. Focusing on teenagers forced into a parental role, she reveals just how fragile this age group is, suspended between childhood and adulthood.
Eliot smokes with bravura, swigs cider and experiments with sex, but he also exhibits immense vulnerability. Maggie struggles valiantly to budget, to comfort Finn (Finn Bennett) and to rein in her adored older brother. These funny, defensive, conflicted teenagers are portrayed with great sympathy by Toby Regbo and Bel Powley, both making their stage debut.
The play can often be witty but it is also deeply sad. The mother’s absence soaks through the whole play but you feel it most keenly when a family friend finally arrives and makes the simple observation: You need a plaster. There is the odd patch where Stenham’s writing becomes too ornate, and it would be good now to see her break into new territory. She surely has the ability.
Sarah Hemming 3 April 2009