The long-awaited third play from Royal Court prodigy Polly Stenham – at 26 still younger than most first time playwrights – is a lively, indulgent psychodrama about a young bohemian determined to go down with his rambling family pile.
At its centre lies Tom Sturridge's Robin, a compelling blend of Peter Pan, Johnny 'Rooster' Byron and gap year hippie. Raised in rural isolation by his fiery mother Lily (Maureen Beattie), Robin has turned away from the world to act as both guardian of the dying Lily's Summer of Love-ish values, and also Lily herself, who he has 'rescued' from a hospice.
Stenham's writing is at its most affecting in the first scene – in which Sturridge's peculiar waif bends every bone in his frail body to ease his mother's pain – and the final one, a bruising, tender encounter between Robin and his older brother Oliver, who suggests that many of the certainties Robin has built his life around may not be true. Stenham confirms her prowess at writing about the intimacy, agony and ecstasy of family, and it's an exemplary turn from Sturridge, who plays the fey Robin with immense empathy.
In between the two scenes is a big, fuck off party, and it's here that Jeremy Herrin's production wobbles. On its own, standalone merits, the lengthy party sequence is fun. In particular, Zoe Boyle and Joshua James are a hoot as Scout and Arlo, two unbearably pretentious friends that Robin acquired during an abortive spell at music college.
But after half an hour or so I did find myself questioning why exactly I was watching a bunch of posh people getting mashed. They continue to do so for an hour as more and more people – some spectacularly peripheral – swing by Robin's pad.
Stenham is unlikely to ever quite escape the shadow of her huge teenage hit 'That Face' (and certainly won't so long as her oeuvre consists solely of family psychodramas that play at the Royal Court Upstairs). Still, for all its faults 'No Quarter' is indubitably the work of a perceptive and gifted writer, not a hipster who got lucky once.
And those who say Stenham can break no new ground are off the mark – this is surely the first play I've seen in which two different characters say the word 'fuckweasel' in two different contexts.