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A CurtainUp London London Review
That Face

All he cares about is his peace of mind. He'll have her locked up. On his terms. I can't allow that to happen. I can't. — Henry
That Face
Lindsay Duncan as Martha
(Photo: John Haynes)
I had inadvertently missed the first production of Polly Stenham's play That Face at the tiny Jerwood Theatre Upstairs at the Royal Court but read the play script when this young playwright caused such a stir. She was only 19 when she wrote That Face, a story about two middle class teenagers in an affluent but severely dysfunctional family, where the parents are divorced and not caring for their children.

Mia (Hannah Murray ) and Henry (Matt Smith) have had to take adult responsibility because their mother is an alcoholic with mental health problems and their father lives thousands of miles away, engrossed with his new, second family. Mia, who is at boarding school, doesn't get on with her mother and during the vacation stays with friends or at her father's flat in Docklands. Henry has dropped out of school is hoping to get into Art School. He lives with his mother Martha (Lindsay Duncan) in a co-dependent relationship where Henry tries to keep her out of full time psychiatric care.

The play opens with a scene in the dorm at Mia's school where she and an older girl Izzy (Catherine Steadman) are carrying out a shocking initiation on a younger 13 year old girl, Alice (Rebecca Eve). This barbaric practice consists of Alice being tied up to a chair, blindfolded and abused verbally and physically. Mia who has almost a pathological personality has given Alice 40mg of Martha's Valium ostensibly to ease the pain of the ghastly ritual. The School discovers the unconscious girl and she is transferred to a hospital in London. Mia and Izzy are sent home pending a decision on their future at the school.

In the London apartment, Henry and his mother are asleep in the same bed. She is trying to apologise for the havoc of the night before, she was drunk, and cajoles Henry calling him, "My baby boy, my baby boy". Mia arrives home, if you can call this flat home, with the news that the school has phoned her father and he is on his way back from Hong Kong. The school had telephoned Martha first and became concerned for Mia when it became obvious that Martha was drunk. Henry and Mia visit Alice in hospital where Alice is unconscious and has severe bruising to her face. They meet Izzy at the hospital and await the arrival of their father Hugh (Julian Wadham).

Lindsay Duncan is totally convincing as Martha, the manipulative, self indulgent, self pitying mother who can hyperventilate to order. When Henry stays out all night with Izzy and Mia, Martha cuts up all his clothes in a bizarrely jealous rage. The cocktail of drink and drugs serve to make her more unstable and we can feel Henry's desperation to patch things up so that his mother isn't institutionalised. When Hugh arrives on the scene, Martha voices all the pain and vitriolic resentment about the breakdown of their marriage and the lack of emotional and financial support since. Whereas Martha is full of emotion, Hannah Murray as her daughter is eerily calm, detached and passive. Mia is almost a wild child, fending for herself. Matt Smith, who as Henry has to spend much of the play wearing his mother's dressing gown (she cut up his other clothes) obviously loves his mother and is desperate to protect her and keep her at home. The damage to the children is patent and distressing but there are moments of bitter comedy mixed into tragedy.

Jeremy Herrin gets fine performances from his cast in a play which explores extreme dysfunction in the professional classes and children left to bring themselves up. Mike Britton's set is modern and functional. On this amazingly well written debut, Polly Stenham will have artistic directors queuing up to produce her plays, which at 20 years of age is absolutely remarkable. All credit to the Royal Court Young Writers Programme for fostering her outstanding talent.

That Face
Written by Polly Stenham
Directed by Jeremy Herrin

Starring: Lindsay Duncan
With: Mike Smith, Hannah Murray, Catherine Steadman, Rebecca Eve, Julian Wadham
Design: Mike Britton
Lighting: Natasha Chivers
Sound: Emma Laxton
Running time: One hour 30 minutes without an interval
Booking to 5th July 2008
Box Office: 0870 060 6623
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 15th May 2008 performance at The Duke of York's, St Martins Lane, London WC1Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Guildford, Surrey (Rail: Guildford)
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