Polly Stenham on 'That Face'

Polly Stenham has become the youngest playwright in the West End since 1966 with the opening of ’That Face‘ at the Duke of York‘s Theatre. Time Out meets the talented 21-year-old

  • Polly Stenham on 'That Face'

    Playwright to the fore: Polly Stenham, Lindsay Duncan, Matt Smith, Hannah Murray (© Marc Brenner)

  • The phrase ‘motivated self-starter’ could have been invented for Polly Stenham – though, unlike many of her peers, you won’t find her agonising over the jobs section. Having won last year’s Charles Wintour Award for most promising playwright (worth £25,000) and a £15,000 commission from the UK Film Council to adapt her debut play ‘That Face’ for the big screen, Stenham is fully aware that she’s one of the lucky ones. ‘I read that 70 per cent of young writers make half the average wage,’ she says, contemplating the difficult decision to drop out of her UCL English course back in 2006. ‘So if you’re making enough to support yourself at the level I am, it’s almost arrogant to say no to it.’

    Stenham, who is thoughtful, emphatic and so enthusiastic she practically speaks in italics, has an old head on young shoulders. ‘I work harder than my friends at college. And I learn quicker on my feet and fuck about less.’ She left university to write ‘That Face’ after it had been commissioned by the Royal Court, but also because she had the estate of her late father (ICA and Unilever chairman ‘Cob’ Stenham) to deal with. ‘He died the day after I found out the play was going to go on, which was just the most mental symmetry,’ she recalls. ‘Though, in a weird way, I don’t think he thought it was any good. He didn’t really rave about it but he was proud.’

    Stenham’s play is dedicated to her father. But its subject matter is, she says, drawn more from her peers. ‘That Face’ opens with two girls torturing a dorm-mate after lights out. And it goes on to expose the plush-lined dysfunction of the wealthy family of one of the tormentors, Mia, who is neglected by her absent father and son-fixated mother. ‘I’d been going to lots of fringe theatre with my Dad since I was eight,’ Stenham explains. ‘So I’d seen a lot of modern plays for someone of my age, but I never saw anything about the kids in my class.’ Joining the Young Writers’ Programme at the Royal Court gave her confidence and ‘amazing support’. But the theatre’s location in Chelsea, ‘one of the most expensive bits of real estate on the planet’, galvanised her to write something that could be happening in a flat round the corner. ‘You’d see these people in pearls watching characters jack up for the seventieth time,’ says Stenham, ‘but what interests me is emotional violence. And that shit goes down irrespective of class and money.’

    The biggest dramatic punch in Stenham’s play comes from the Oedipal relationship of Mia’s drunken mother and her teenage son, Henry. Stenham talks about the ‘dog pit, feral’ thrill of watching people attack each other and reveal their true colours. And Henry and Martha’s tender, twisted relationship is backed up by dream casting. Matt Smith (‘Swimming With Sharks’, TV’s ‘Party Animals’) reprises his role as Henry, and Lindsay Duncan returns for the transfer to play Mia’s mother Martha, a manipulative wreck of a woman whose name and negligée-toting attack on her nearest and dearest pay tribute to American syllabus stalwarts Edward Albee and Tennessee Williams .

    ‘That Face’ has apparently already joined its inspirations on the curriculum: ‘I’ve got mates doing finals and they’re like, “Polly, you’re on our Moderns II”. How mad’s that?’ But despite all the plaudits, Stenham is hardly resting on her laurels in a week that will make her the youngest playwright on the West End since Christopher Hampton in 1966. ‘You start thinking: Fuck, 650 seats. That’s 52,000 tickets. I can’t believe 52,000 people go to anything.’ Her solution? Do what any other young writer with a bit of nous would. ‘I’ve been flyering near where I live all week,’ she confesses. ‘I’ve done the organic shop; I’ve done the dry cleaners. I’m just hoping it’s not going to be like women’s football when everyone’s playing brilliantly, and you look up and the place is empty.’

    'That Face' is at the Duke of York’s Theatre until July 15.

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