Review: Tusk Tusk

Stenham beats the second-play challenge

By John Nathan, April 7, 2009

Royal Court Upstairs, London SW1

Toby Regbo (left), Finn Bennett and Bel Powley are the children abandoned by their mother in Tusk Tusk

Toby Regbo (left), Finn Bennett and Bel Powley are the children abandoned by their mother in Tusk Tusk

The question was, would the second play live up to the first?

Two years ago, aged just 19, Polly Stenham presented That Face at the Royal Court’s tiny upstairs stage. There was no reason to think that yet another drama about a dysfunctional family — so much easier to write than plays about functional families — promised anything remarkable. But Stenham revealed torment in a world where few modern writers had thought to look — the privately educated middle classes.

The play, which won its author a cap-full of “most promising playwright” awards and transferred to the West End, centred on the destructive relationship between a divorced and drunk middle-aged mother and her 18-year-old son to whom she unhealthily clings as if he were her toy boy.

In some ways Stenham’s keenly-anticipated follow-up, which is set in a cramped London flat, could serve as a prequel to That Face. The newly arrived residents are three children -— 15-year-old Eliot (Toby Regbo), his 14-year-old-sister Maggie (Bel Powley), and their seven-year-old brother Finn (played on this press night by Finn Bennett).

This time the flaky mother, a role so conspicuous in Stenham’s previous work, is entirely absent. Or to use the term coined by the hit Hollywood movie, Eliot, Maggie and Finn are at “home alone”. Eliot could easily be a younger version of the son who in That Face exhibited such self-destructive loyalty to his disintegrating mother. It is easy to imagine that this is one of many moments of abandonment he will have to endure before making the transition from mummy’s boy to mummy’s companion.

For Eliot, Maggie and Finn, however, these maternal disappearances have already happened many times before, though not for this long. So Eliot strikes a deal with his sister. If their mother has not turned up by his birthday in a week’s time, they will call in some adults, which Eliot warns will mean splitting up the siblings who are already on an at-risk register.

Until then, it is a question of waiting and spending the 200 quid Maggie found in one of the unpacked boxes as wisely as possible.

Eliot blows most of it on Cassie (Georgia Groome), a girl from the local council estate. I do not think it is giving too much away to report that over the two hours of her play, Stenham does not resolve the evening with a happy reunion. She is more interested in revealing how irresponsible adults force children to be adult and responsible.

It is a lesson that reminded me of that proverb — now a platitude — usually directed at those expecting their first child, and by those who think it makes them sound awfully wise: “It’s not adults who make children. It’s children who make adults.”

That is essentially the cliché trap which in writing a grown-up play populated by children, Stenham sets herself.

And it is the trap around which her well-observed play pirouettes and even teeters. But it never falls. Yes, children can display a maturity beyond their years. But we also get to see their limitations. Think of Lord of the Flies, only think of it set in a sitting-room/kitchenette, and you will not be too far away from a fair picture of Stenham’s survival play.

Games are played, hierarchies established, fears about abandonment expressed through remembered nursery rhymes once told by an absent mother.

One frightening scene, during which the cider-fuelled Maggie is playing with Finn sees the boy fall and cut his head with ghastly gash. And it is this physical threat that keeps the evening’s tension high. Surviving abandonment psychologically is one thing. But these kids could actually die in this banal little flat.

But where Stenham scores so heavily is not so much with her lesson about family loyalty, but in her astoundingly accurate depiction of the ebb and flow of sibling relationships. It is all-out war one minute and utter trust and forgiveness the next — a rhythm that Jeremy Herrin’s gripping and beautifully performed production is completely in tune with.

There is, though, emerging in Stenham’s writing a story about class that she has yet to focus on. The children in her play are terrifyingly articulate. Less so is Eliot’s state-educated girlfriend whose dignity rests on a powerful but rather pat speech about the value of hard-earned money.

I would love to see this talented young writer attempt to reconcile these two worlds — or at least involve them. Perhaps some of this will come though in her already commissioned third Royal Court play. Whatever her chosen territory, the next question abut Polly Stenham’s career has already been posed. Will the third play live up to the second?

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Last updated: 2:54pm, September 2 2009