Last Updated on 17th September 2023
Tim Hochstrasser reviews Polly Stenham’s play That Face now playing at the Orange Tree Theatre Richmond.
Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond
The Orange Tree Theatre does sterling work in commissioning new plays and reviving those that have lapsed into obscurity. No one could say that Polly Stenham’s work as a whole is neglected or unappreciated; but it is fifteen years since her breakthrough play – ‘That Face’ – was received with critical acclaim at the Royal Court, and therefore now quite appropriate to see how it stands up in a fresh production. Regrettably, despite some superb acting, I remain unconvinced.
The drama depicts the disintegration of a family spectacular in affluence and dysfunction in equal measure. The father, Hugh, who is some kind of broker in Hong Kong, has left his family some time ago for a second wife and child and connects with his former wife and children only through financial subventions, his ‘solution’ to all problems. Meanwhile, his first wife, Martha, has declined into a spiral of drugs and drink to such an extent that her son, Henry, has had to drop out of school in order to care for her, with the roles of parent and child exactly reversed. Younger daughter, Mia, has kept her distance, but at the very start, we see her go off the rails in a different way. She and an older fellow pupil drug a junior girl in a dorm hazing ritual which leads to her expulsion from school and Hugh’s return to England to sort everything out.
The action focuses on a simple bed which rotates between the scenes as props are added or removed. It starts as the neat bed of a school dorm and then quickly becomes the setting for Martha’s squalid existence of pills, booze, cigarettes, and ever-accumulating detritus. This tightly focused design by Eleanor Bull is complemented by a sharp, incisive lighting design by Jamie Platt based around two circular strip lights that float above the action. As usual, at the Orange Tree, the production values are economical and make full use of the four entrances enabled by having theatre-in-the-round.
The performances are never less than good, and some are outstanding. In the central, partly monstrous role of the disturbed Martha, Niamh Cusack shifts between nervy energy, wheedling manipulation, vicious malice, and deceitful vagueness with real brio. There are never enough roles of quality for older actresses, and she fully grasps this fine opportunity. Equally impressive are Kaspar Hilton-Hille and Ruby Stokes, both making their stage debuts. Hilton-Hille is at the centre of most of the scenes in the play, desperately trying to restore order and security to his mother’s disordered world. He makes us understand why he is so reluctant for the nightmare to end in his mother going into secure care – for that would remove all value from his own attempts to resolve the situation. By the end we sense very clearly the cost to his own mental stability of having such terrible parents. In many ways he is the true victim. Stokes too gives a finely calibrated performance in a role that seems much more entitled and unfeeling, but which is in fact another set of responses to an impossible situation.
The other two roles are rather underwritten, and this is part of what does not work with the play as a whole. The older schoolgirl, Izzy, is played with brisk, dismaying arrogance by Sarita Gabony; but after a strong start she suddenly disappears from the action after a fleeting sexual encounter with Henry. The opposite problem applies in the case of the father, Hugh, who really appears too late to establish his character fully – his past actions are made to bear a great deal of explanatory weight, but he gets little time to put his side of the story or to regret his actions. Dominic Mafham makes the best of what is there.
This play is a remarkable achievement for a nineteen-year-old author. But there are real defects. In addition to the problem of balance between the characters there is simply too much of Martha ‘in extremis’, compelling as the actors make these scenes. The tone has a relentless intensity of eloquent, intrafamilial evisceration that does not ebb and flow as it should, suggesting that the play has never quite transcended its obvious models in the work of Coward, Albee and Tennessee Williams.
That Face plays at the Orange Tree Theatre until 7 October 2023.