Review: That Face

By John Nathan, May 23, 2008


Duke of York’s Theatre, London WC2

I did not see Polly Stenham’s debut play about a posh dysfunctional family when it appeared last year at the Royal Court. But I suspect that this transfer from the Court’s tiny theatre upstairs — where the audience would have felt the full impact of the play’s sordid scenes — to the Duke of York’s larger stage, where Jeremy Herrin’s production has been endowed with West End production values, has resulted in a case of more is less.

Stenman’s chosen territory is the strongest justification yet of the Royal Court’s decision to turn its gaze from the working to the middle classes. Mia (Hannah Murray) and Izzy (Catherine Steadman) are two boarding-school teenagers who go too far with their bullying initiation ceremony. Mia has used her mother’s tranquilisers on their victim (Rebecca Eve) and it appears that Izzy has beaten her up.

The play’s opening torture-porn scene would seem to herald a drama about an amoral generation. But when the action moves from the dorm to the bedroom of Mia’s divorced mother, Martha (Lindsay Duncan), the moral deficit is revealed to be the parents’ — not the children’s.

In Martha, Stenham has created a drunk manipulator who could out-drink and out-manipulate even her namesake in Edward Allbee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf? But the dramatic core of the play lies in Martha’s destructive, even Oedipal relationship with her 18-year-old son Henry (Matt Smith) whom she uses to fill the gap in her life, and in her bed, left by her ex. With it, Stenham has created the latest in a line of dramatic mother/son relationships where, like Gertrude and Hamlet, and Coward’s Nicky and Florence, they express love through intense confrontation. Duncan’s swaggering and sardonic Martha is superbly supported (in more ways than one) by Smith’s achingly vulnerable Henry. When his rich father Hugh (Julian Wadham) belatedly attempts to stop the damage to his children caused by his callous absence and his ex-wife’s selfish presence, the play even has shades of O’Neal’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night. 

Like the best writers, Stenham can allude to great works without compromising the originality of her voice.  (Tel: 0870 060 6623)

Last updated: 12:50pm, May 27 2008