Polly Stenham is so famous for writing her debut play aged 19, that it sometimes feels like it’s become subliminally accepted that her youth was the reason ‘That Face’ was so successful. Was its West End-storming success purely industry excitement at her youth?
I recently saw a revival of another zeitgeisty ‘00s smash, ‘God of Carnage’, and it had very clearly lost its edge with the passage of time.
By contrast, ‘That Face’ still feels like a sharp knife to the guts. It’s a howl of betrayal, a dark comedy about two teenagers all but abandoned by their narcissistic mother and wealthy father, an attack on posh parenting by somebody barely older than her protagonists Mia and Henry. The fact it’s somewhat autobiographical certainly gives it an added punch. But ‘That Face’ isn’t good just because it has the rawness of personal experience. It’s also beautifully structured, a perfect weighted balance of comedy and tragedy.
It begins at a girls’ boarding school, where Mia (Ruby Stokes) and her performatively posh, vaguely sinister friend Izzy (Sarita Gabony) are inflicting a hazing ritual upon their new dorm mate. But a giggling Mia has fed the young girl a massive dose of Prozac that she’s swiped off her mum… as it dawns on Izzy how serious this is, they enter panic mode.
So far, so ‘Mean Girls’, but when a suspended Mia turns up at the flat her brother Henry (Kasper Hilton-Hille) and mother Martha (Niamh Cusack) live in, it puts a new spin on things. Martha is a mess, estranged from Mia, living in claustrophobic, booze-addled seclusion with Henry, who she dotes upon suffocatingly. The school had phoned regarding Mia’s prescription pill hijinks, but Martha was too pissed to remember. The conversation set off so many alarm bells that the school called Mia and Henry’s dad Hugh (Dominic Mafham). He has a new life in Hong Kong but is now on a flight home to ‘take charge’, ie spare himself the humiliation of having his daughter taken into care.
Big name Cusack turns in a magnetic performance as the raging, pathetic Martha, who is effectively parented by Henry. But in some ways she feels more like a special effect than a character: the biggest weakness of Stenham’s play is that Martha’s extreme messiness feels over the top and under-explained.
But elsewhere it’s superb: Stenham is particularly astute at nailing how children will bend their personalities backwards to try and keep the peace. Mia is sullen and snarky towards her parents one-on-one. But when the family is gathered she becomes eager to please, in order to protect Henry from the consequences of his blind hostility towards Hugh, who believes he deserves his children’s respect purely because of the amount of money he’s prepared to spend on them. And Henry has sacrificed so much of himself to look after his impossible mother it’s hard to even see who he is now - he has a different personality for everyone he talks to, and has no idea what he actually wants in life.
With a set that’s basically an institutional-looking bed that could be a boarding school, could be a psychiatric ward, Eleanor Bull’s design is simple but evocative of the family itself as an institution, one that has spun catastrophically out of control in the absence of leadership. If Cusack is there to bring the acting fireworks, there are some excellent turns from the rest of the cast, especially Stokes as Mia – she manages to be both obnoxiously brattish and deeply sympathetic. Josh Seymour’s production is fairly no-frills, but it has a spare intensity that really focusses the mind on the lacerating prose, and is well suited to the intimacy of the Orange Tree’s in-the-round setup
There’s the very real possibility that Polly Stenham will never top the play she wrote when she was 19, but at least she can rest easy in the knowledge that it really is a classic, a timeless roar of teenage frustration.