Frances Barber, James Norton, Leila Mimmack, Amy Dawson, Alistair Petrie
“Apparently, this is about a dysfunctional family” whispered a woman as the lights went down. Whether she was prepared for exactly how dysfunctional this particular family is, sadly went unrecorded.
Polly Stenham’s debut play, receiving its regional premiere in Sheffield, focuses on Martha, a manic depressive alcoholic with an unsettlingly close relationship with her teenage son. When her daughter is suspended from boarding school, and her ex-husband flies back home from Hong Kong, it’s only a matter of time before the family’s fragile psyche is destroyed.
With its expletive laden script, brief nudity and implications of incest, That Face possibly isn’t for everyone. It is, however, a remarkably powerful and compelling play, and director Richard Wilson has utilised the somewhat claustrophobic space of the Crucible’s Studio theatre wonderfully.
A revolving stage means that each scene flows quickly together, and there’s remarkable detail in James Cotterill’s sets, especially in the crumpled mess of Henry’s bedroom. Yet Stenham’s exemplary dialogue means that this is very much an actor’s play, with Wilson’s casting cleverly mixing experience with new, young talent.
Frances Barber is superb as Martha – it’s not an easy role to play, by any means but Barber manages to make her character likeable, funny and poignant. As her character gradually collapses, she portrays Martha’s pain and confusion beautifully.
Yet it is James Norton’s Henry who is the emotional centre of That Face. In the London premiere, the part was played by future Dr Who Matt Smith, and it’s not hard to see a similarly starry path for Norton, who is quite brilliant here. Made to go under all sorts of emotional indignities, including a horrific final act that has to be seen to be believed, he completely inhabits Henry’s character.
Leila Mimmack, looking for all the world like a young Kiera Knightly, is also superb as Martha’s daughter Mia (and she still looks suitably traumatised during the curtain call) and Amy Dawson is rather terrifying as her bullying best friend, Izzy. Hugh Petrie also portrays the buttoned-up, repressed Englishman to perfection in his rather under-written role of Hugh.
Anyone who’s coming to see That Face due to Richard Wilson’s stellar comic reputation will be disappointed. There are laughs in That Face, but the overall impact is more of being slapped in the face repeatedly for a couple of hours. Yet it’s impossible to tear your eyes from, and all the better for being performed in the Studio. A larger space would rob the play of its intimacy – this is the sort of performance where you need to see the whites of the actors eyes.
It may not have the magical, uplifting quality of Alice, playing in the main stage area of the Crucible at the same time, but in its own way, That Face is just as extraordinary a piece of work.