That Face @ Duke Of York’s Theatre, London

cast list
Lindsay Duncan
Hannah Murray
Matt Smith
Catherine Steadman
Julian Wadham

directed by
Jeremy Herrin
They fuck you up, your mum and dad. In the case of the family in Polly Stenhams play, thats an understatement. Martha and her teenage son Henry are unhealthily close. Wafting around the stage in a night gown, a glass of wine never far from her grasp, Martha is clingy and needy in the extreme. She pets and caresses him, calls him her little Russian soldier.

Its a different story with her young daughter Mia. When a boarding school initiation backfires (the girl accidentally administers an overdose of Valium to a classmate) and Mia ends up at her door, Martha, makes it clear that she is less than welcome. While Henry is her everything, the target of her adoration; Mia is simply in the way, an irritant.

Written when she was just nineteen, That Face was initially staged in the Royal Court before making the transition to the West End. Its a taut piece of writing, aided by Lindsay Duncans superb performance as Martha. With her unkempt blonde hair framing her face, she is captivating as a woman oblivious to the harm she is doing to her son. The oedipal undercurrents between the two of them are strong. When Martha discovers Henry has slept with a girl, she looks stricken, betrayed. He, in turn, seems aware how inappropriate her behaviour is, yet seems unable to resist it. He is simultaneously repelled and besotted with his beloved mummy, unable to say no to her.

In the role of Henry, Matt Smiths task is a difficult one. His character is on the cusp of adulthood, at times a child, at others a man. His strange little-boy voice highlights this disparity. Initially he is the most grounded character in the play, the most human, the most together. But the toll his time looking after his alcoholic mother after his father absconded to Hong Kong with a younger woman has taken on him soon becomes apparent. The play culminates when the childrens absent dad returns, keen to whisk Martha into a rehab centre. This sends Henry into an emotional tailspin.

Stenham is good at creating scenes of emotional intensity, that much is apparent. Though sometimes the intensity was too much, the pitch of the play too hysterical. On these occasions it felt very much like the work of a young person, a little too full on. And while the relationships were complex and the characters were plausible and whole, they seemed devoid of warmth: brittle and empty. As a result, while one could admire the skill evident in the writing, it was hard to care too much about these people and their problems. I suppose that is the point, to illustrate how the actions of the parents ends up damaging the children, but it made it difficult to relate to any of the characters.

Though originally staged in the Court’s 80-seater upstairs space, the play does not feel too over exposed in its new, considerably larger, home and fills the space well. Marthas unmade bed dominates the set and gets increasingly grubby as the unstable Martha flings paper and clothes and wine around the place, the mess mirroring the characters emotional landscape.

At around eighty minutes, the play is also admirably compact, saying and doing all it needs to, and resisting the urge to drag things out longer than necessary. That said, the emotionally fraught pitch of the thing, the rawness, would be difficult to sustain over a longer period. I will be interested to see what Stenham does next, how she follows this. Praise and pressure go hand in hand and this play has been lauded in some corners perhaps more than is necessary, but though the privileged, brittle world she depicts is a repellent one, her talent as a writer shines through.

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