Duke Of York's Theatre, London WC2
Opened 9 May, 2008

In some ways Polly Stenham and her play have been marketed as the high-culture equivalent of the TV series Skins: young, edgy and almost criminally photogenic. For this transfer (which makes Stenham, at 21 – and only 19 when she wrote the piece – the youngest playwright in the West End since Christopher Hampton’s debut in 1966), the parallel has been made explicit with the casting of Hannah Murray, who played Cassie in the series, as troubled 15-year-old Mia. I was not entirely won over by That Face on its première in the Royal Court’s upstairs studio space, and have not been fervently converted now, but it works more than respectably in this comparatively smallish (650-seat) West End playhouse.
What had been fearsome grotesquerie in the Theatre Upstairs is to some extent digested by the larger space; it becomes easier to laugh at Lindsay Duncan’s booze-and-pill-raddled, Oedipal mother Martha without the laughter carrying an edge of desperate self-defence. But the character’s monstrousness remains apparent, aided by Duncan’s trademark poise with which Martha tries to make her neuroses somehow alluring. As her tormented 18-year-old son Henry, dropped out of school to attempt to keep her out of an institution, Matt Smith goes the full fifteen rounds with Duncan, which is high praise. This is a young man who is allowed neither his own pleasures in life nor, really, his own pain, subordinate in every respect to his attention-seeking mother.
Nor is this dysfunctional family on a sink estate: rather, they can flit between Martha and Henry’s home (quite possibly around the corner from the Royal Court) and the Docklands apartment used by divorced father Hugh on the rare occasions when he visits from his second family in Hong Kong. He flies in during this 80-minute piece, impelled not just by Martha’s latest exploits but also by Mia’s expulsion from her private boarding school for dosing a younger girl with Valium and torturing her in an initiation ritual. Murray, so fascinating and unsettling on the screen, is a little adrift in her first significant stage role; like Daniel Radcliffe in Equus last year, she does not yet have a wide enough range of vocal expression. But Duncan, Smith and Jeremy Herrin’s production see matters through with the required edge. Is it like Skins? Only if Eugene O’Neill had storyboarded the series.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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