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A CurtainUp London London Review
Tusk Tusk

If some kids came in with a bleeding seven year old without a parent in sight I'd ask bloody questions. They'll think we hit him. They'll think — God knows —what they'll think — Eliot
Tusk Tusk
Toby Regbo as Eliot and Bel Powley as Maggie
(Photo: Johan Persson)
At 21, Polly Stenham's first play for the Royal Court That Face transferred to the West End making her a close runner up for the title of youngest female playwright to be produced in the West End since Shelagh Delaney, whose first play, A Taste of Honey, transferred from the Theatre Royal Stratford East in 1959. Stenham's second play Tusk Tusk centres on a family of children who find themselves without a parent. Whereas That Face was about a mother who wasn't coping with her responsibilities as a mother, Tusk Tusk goes one stage further to look at a situation where the mother has gone out and not come back.

Three exceptional young actors take on the roles of Bel Powley as 14 year old Maggie, Toby Regbo as almost 16 year old Eliot and Finn Bennett (alternating with Austin Moulton) as seven year old Finn. These three find themselves newly moved into a flat surrounded by unopened packing cases, in Robert Innes Hopkins' living space/ kitchen set, and with no responsible adult in sight. A nosy neighbor complains about the loud music and the banging and they have to pretend that they are not without adult supervision. Maggie finds 200 in one of the packing cases and they decide to try to live on this but Eliot, a few days off his 16th birthday wants to go out and spend to meet girls while sex is still illegal. He brings home good time girl Cassie (Georgia Groome). While Eliot goes out, Maggie is left in charge of Finn.

Reminding one of a society where the children make the rules, with echoes of Lord of the Rings, Eliot and Maggie have decided that if people find out that their mother is no longer there that they will be taken into care and split up. Their father has died of cancer some years earlier and there seems to be no relative to whom they can go for help, so they decide to go it alone. They can break the rules with staying up late and eating crisps for breakfast. They tensely watch their cell phones in the hope that the mother will telephone. Slowly it emerges that their mother is on anti-psychotic drugs and her disappearance may mean that she is never coming back. Cassie makes a heartfelt speech to Eliot, about the realities of living on her working class estate and keeping down a job, which is full of class tension and indignation. The arrival of their mother's adult friends, Katie (Caroline Harker) and Roland (Tom Beard) could be a life saver but presents more problems when details of a disastrous relationship emerge.

The final scenes have a double twist with both Katie and Roland's arrival and a revelation from Maggie. The splendid performances from the children make this play sometimes funny, sometimes bitter, but always believable as Maggie accuses Eliot of having inherited their mother's promiscuity. Seventeen year old Bel Powley has astonishing maturity as an actor in conveying the complexity of a girl thrust into adult responsibilities and decisions in respect of her inadequate mother and her absentee brother. The world that they try to create for Finn relates to his favourite children's books. They build him a boat like Max in Maurice Sendak's classic Where the Wild Things are, a story about a boy on his own who tames the monsters all on his own. The monsters here are the uncertainty of a parent letting you down, not just by not coming home, but by her bi-polar behaviour while she was living with her children and how are these tamed?

Polly Stenham follows up That Face with originality and makes us wonder what writing material there was in the lives of her generation from boarding school — children from wealthy but deeply dysfunctional families, adults who were off the rails with drink, drugs, divorce and mental health issues. With only Maggie and Eliot's descriptions of the absent parent, Tusk Tusk is slightly less powerful than the disintegrating adult (a wonderful performance from Lindsay Duncan) seen in That Face, but this new play has a longer, slower burn as the final scenes notch up complexity and the damaging situation stays to haunt.

Stenham interrupted her university English course to concentrate on playwriting and now finds London University students are studying her play. Remarkable! Tusk Tusk sold out very early but is almost sure to reappear either at the Court in the larger Jerwood Downstairs space or in the West End.

Tusk Tusk
Written by Polly Stenham
Directed by Jeremy Herrin

With: Toby Regbo, Bel Powley,
Design: Robert Innes Hopkins
Lighting: Neil Austin
Sound: Emma Laxton
Running time: Two hours including an interval
Box Office: 020 7565 5000
Booking to 2nd May 2009
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 2nd April 2009 performance at the Jerwood Theatre Upstairs, Royal Court Theatre, Sloane Square, London SW1 (Tube: Sloane Square)

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