FringeReview UK 2023
Its qualities are extraordinary, that of a Greek tragedy on Prozac performed by St Trinian’s. Prozac Nation’s referenced, but Polly Stenham’s point is how parental damage numbs you out of feeling anything at the right time, with displacement activities chateau-bottled around a bed. Yet it is, of course, very funny. An outstanding revival, given extra intensity by the staging; an intimacy so palpable you both flinch and laugh at the same moment.
Director Josh Seymour, Designer Eleanor Bull, Lighting Designer Jamie Platt, Sound Designer George Dennis, Movement & Intimacy Director Ingrid MacKinnon,
Voice Coach Tess Dignan, Dialect Coach Adam Rhys-Charles Assistant Director Chani Merrell, Assistant Lighting Director Gulika Nagpal Casting Co-ordinator Sarah Murray
Production Manager and Technical Director Stuart Burgess, CSM Jenny Skivens, Costume Supervisor Hannah Arteaga, Deputy Stage Manager May Curtiss, ASM Holly Mather, Make-Up Advisor Chelsea Wharton, Production Technician Priva Virdee
Rehearsal & Production Photography Johan Persson.
Till October 7th
This time it all happens on one bed. It’s salutary to be reminded just how good Polly Stenham’s That Face is. This revival of her 2007 debut play directed by Josh Seymour at the Orange Tree blazes with new discovery and a staged intensity in the round that even the original couldn’t possess.
Its qualities are extraordinary, that of a Greek tragedy on Prozac performed by St Trinian’s. Prozac Nation’s referenced, but Stenham’s point is how parental damage numbs you out of feeling anything at the right time, with displacement activities chateau-bottled around a bed. Yet it is, of course, very, very funny.
This work of what’s now called parentification – the child being parent to the parent, and how damaging this is – is far more than that. Whilst Henry (Kasper Hilton-Hille, making a notably assured stage debut) desperately tries to stabilise his alcoholic, disturbed and downright incestuous mother Martha (Niamh Cusack), sister Mia (Ruby Stokes) entertains other demons, refracted through their absent broker father.
This is Hugh (Dominic Mafham), now off on a second marriage in Hong Kong. It’s his threatened return that powers the 95-minute play to its denouement: an exploding family finally reunited for a brief season in hell with banishment. Like trying to reverse a centrifuge.
It’s Mia whom we see first with her older schoolfriend Izzy (Sarita Gabony) torturing Alice (Anya Ellis on this occasion) in some initiation that goes horribly wrong. So Mia interrupts the fragile, wholly co-dependant Henry/Martha cocoon by crashing in. Martha says there’s no room: no surprise, no love lost there. But Mia’s been expelled and though she can stay at her father’s property, visiting Alice in hospital with Henry’s moral support, she bumps into another visitor Henry might like to meet.
Eleanor Bull’s striking single bed with everything on it (including, memorably, cut-up clothes) and off, is spun round between scenes by cast members with Jamie Platt’s lighting either consolatory or glaring, in circling filaments overhead. It’s at these moments we hear the eerily jangling themes George Dennis introduces that ratchets tension but never detracts, remaining silent otherwise. The bed starts as a school dorm one, becomes Martha’s or Henry’s or Hugh’s; and one in a hospital.
Now Seymour adds two interpolated silent scenes played simultaneously, not in the text. It’s superb. Thus now Henry gets together with Izzy, with his mother on the bed too, clearly miles off but also inches away as they have sex; like a revenant who’s not even died yet, and will never let Henry go. Hardly surprising when, to match his love-bite from Izzy, Martha later gives her son another, like a vampire marking ownership to a rival female. She’s appalled he’s not gay.
Yet not even Izzy can save Henry, or perhaps Mia from their sibling fright at the idea of Hugh the absent father returning to “Family Number One”. Mia’s returning to school is at stake for a start: Hugh holds the necessary bribes. Hugh’s promise/threat is toxic too. First Mia, then Henry is brusque panicking to get rid of Izzy before he arrives at his flat. Even Mia’s surprised at Henry.
Still the chemistry between Cusack, fantastically sozzled, dangerous, wheedling, with Martha faking hyper-ventilation (as Henry knows) and Hilton-Hille is the open wound of this play. Hilton-Hille’s debut is a stunning baptism of firewater too.
This degree of twisted intimacy seems at least as transgressive as it did in 2007. Here though everything’s more concentrated, viscerally up-close, magnified in impact. Cusack’s performance is a tour-de-force of extremes with a devastating comedy. There’s Martha’s tricksy persuasions, mood-swings, violence cutting up Henry’s clothes (we only see the result).
The raving co-dependence scales up from constructive (showing Henry how to sketch) to something near diabolic when Henry’s dressed in Martha’s nightie and necklaces. It’s not cross-dressing as we know it, but an act of possession. There’s elements of Henry’s behaviour still unexplained, and Martha’s; but we’re in irrational territory.
Hilton-Hille quickly glides into an assured tone that takes on powerful feeling whilst conveying a mix of responsibility and helpless arrested development in the face of his mother. Stokes too moves Mia effortlessly through her own extremes: fellow-torturer, appalled shame-ridden girl (never guilt-ridden perhaps), both rebellious towards her father yet fawning on his power to rescue her; someone whose love for her brother slowly emerges, the one healthy emotion they share. It’s another striking stage debut.
Gabony’s Izzy is a slinky mix of callousness, lust yet vulnerability too, especially with Henry who has the power to hurt because she so quickly falls for him. Stenham’s already a writer who can give Izzy a moment of heartbreak.
Mafham’s Hugh conveys his backstory of callous neglect and brusque command; a way of dealing with minions. With a crust of civilised behaviour joshing about boarding schools “you aren’t meant to enjoy them much” but dismissive of anything needing nuance: like family. He can only “deal” with Martha, clear her away. Yet even Hugh realises his failures. Ellis looks rightly terrified throughout her ordeal, with the hood off.
This is an outstanding revival, given extra intensity by the staging; an intimacy so palpable you both flinch and laugh in the same moment.
Stenham went on to explore this territory obsessively – rich children, dysfunctional or absent parents – in three further plays; and adapted Miss Julie as Julie in 2018. She wrote prophetically in That Face, of a damage that her writing even now pursues; and never quite lets go as she rescues orphans from storms in Belgravia.