That Face

Writer Polly Stenham was just 19 when she wrote this, her first play. Having had it's premiere at the Royal Court and garnered a number of awards, it's now moved up to the West End. It's success is well-deserved because there's a freshness in the writing and the humour as well as the plot.

Polly Stenham brings us the world of a dysfunctional family where roles are never clear-cut or as one would expect them to be. Children act like parents, and parents ignore their responsibilities, acting more like their offspring should.

Mia and Henry's parents are estranged. Their father is a wealthy broker who lives in Hong Kong and their mother is a disturbed, self-centred alcoholic who fears and hates her daughter but loves her son so much that she reaches for the bottle whenever he's not around. Henry has given up school supposedly to focus on his artistic skills, but the real reason is to keep his mother on the straight and narrow.

The play begins, though, with a scene at Mia's school where the initiation ceremony of a new schoolgirl turns sour because Mia has given the thirteen year-old victim a huge dose of her mother's valium, rendering her totally unconscious and, onc suspects, close to death.

Sent home while her school decide her fate, Mia has to face her Mother and her father is called from overseas to sort out the mess. In the midst of all of this, Henry is torn between looking after his mother and his own need for self-development.

Although 'That Face' is sharply focused and intense, I wonder if the basic concept is really all that new. It's hard not to recollect the mother-daughter relationship in the hit TV comedy 'Absolutely Fabulous' where a wayward mother finds her studious and 'normal' daughter almost impossible to comprehend. I'm not saying that the ideas are identical by any means, but there are similarities. However, in spite of its humour, 'That Face' presents a much more serious and penetrating examination of parent-child relationships.

Jeremy Herrin's direction is as refreshing as the writing. The play flows fluidly with the cast handling scene changes. But some of the characters keep position as if they're fading out of memory as the scene changes takes place. It's a neat and highly effective transition. However, the music is a little on the loud side for my taste, albeit I can see why it needs to jar given the way the characters grate against each other in this topsy-turvy family world.

Lyndsay Duncan turns in an exceptionally convincing performance as the self-centred alcoholic, Martha, who has actually failed to grow up and uses almost childish ploys to get her own way. Duncan exposes a mother who has almost lost every ounce of maternal instinct and obligation, though she eventually finds some semblance of redemption.

Matt Smith is the son, Henry, whose attempts to provide emotional security for his mother conflict with his own development as a human being, to the extent that he ultimately teeters on the brink of emotional collapse. It's a highly-charged and moving portrayal.

Short enough not to become tedious, but long enough to define believable characters and tell a story well, my only real reservation about 'That Face' is how relevant it is. The fact that we're delving into the world of a well-to-do family - wealthy enough to have a second home in Docklands and to send both children to public (actually private) schools - this is not exactly what one would define as a 'typical' family. Yet it highlights the fact that money alone won't ensure happiness. If it doesn't actually cause the problems this family are facing, it certainly has a great deal to do with it. And by implication, the nature of the consumer society is, once again, brought sharply into the spotlight.

Polly Stenham's play is genuinely absorbing, with a dark, almost mischievous sense of humour that is quite irresistible and at times shocking. Fresh and modern, it has the power to keep us guessing about what will happen next, so that we're not really sure of the outcome until it eventually happens. A fine debut from a writer to watch in the future, it's also well-directed, and the entire cast give it every bit of their energy to make it work. It certainly does!


What the popular press had to say.....
NICHOLAS DE JONGH for THE EVENING STANDARD says, "Powerful, expressionistic production." MICHAEL BILLINGTON for THE GUARDIAN says, "Polly Stenham...has a quality of emotional desperation one more often associates with mature American dramatists." CHARLES SPENCER for THE DAILY TELEGRAPH says, "There is so much vigour in the writing, so much passion in the playing, that one leaves the theatre feeling strangely exhilarated." BENEDICT NIGHTINGALE for THE TIMES says, " That Face has its prolix and its overstated moments, but it impressed everyone when it launched Stenham's career at the Royal Court's Theatre Upstairs last year."

External links to full reviews from popular press
The Guardian
Daily Telegraph
The Times

Originally published on

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