Polly Stenham

That Face

22/03/18

Assembly Roxy, Edinburgh

I have to say, I’m not a great fan of Polly Stenham’s debut play. Written when she was only nineteen, it certainly shows prodigious promise – there are some gloriously grotesque characters here – but it’s all just so much sound and fury, with a payoff that is curiously flat. That said, Edinburgh-based Anais Productions make a decent fist of it, with some strong performances. They’re playing to a packed house, with a younger, more vocally appreciative audience than we usually see, and successfully create the sense of claustrophobic isolation so central to the play.

We first meet Mia (Dora Davies-Evitt) at boarding school, where, along with classmate Izzy (Sara Harvey), she has drugged and tortured a younger student (Jane Link). This is a fascinating opening gambit, and I wish Stenham had given it more space within her play; instead, it’s just a springboard into Mia’s family, as she’s expelled, and has to return home.

And home is a strange place indeed. Her mother, Martha (Hannah Churchill), is an alcoholic, addicted to valium and manipulative in the extreme. She has no time for Mia, whose very presence she sees as an interruption, but is utterly devoted to her son, Henry (Barney Rule). Abandoned by her husband, Hugh (Michael Hajiantonis), Martha makes impossible demands of Henry, who is expected to take his father’s place as carer, protector and even lover. He drops out of school and focuses all his attention on his mother, whose warped expectations fuel a monstrous co-dependency.

Churchill and Rule perform these roles with real panache, clearly relishing the chance to explore such complex, twisted characters. Churchill is utterly engaging as Martha, her mirthless smirk particularly unnerving, and Rule brings such intensity to Henry’s suffering that we cannot help but empathise. They’re hampered only by the perennial problem of student productions, i.e. they’re all about the same age, so – if you didn’t know the play – it might take a while to realise that they’re mother and son, and some of the intergenerational oddity of the relationship is lost. (Similarly, Mia is a less sympathetic character than she might be if she were visibly younger, her vulnerability more apparent.)

The weak point is the final third, when Hugh arrives from Hong Kong to deal with his daughter’s expulsion. Michael Hajiantonis plays the part convincingly, but it’s a disappointingly ordinary denouement after all the high drama, and undermines the weirdness of all that has gone before. He seems to be the scapegoat, as if his leaving is the reason for Martha’s predatory ways. The play flounders here, and never really recovers.

Still, apart from some over-extended blackouts – which, for some reason, this particular audience sees as an opportunity for chat – this is a competent production, and a welcome chance to engage with a divisive, challenging play. Do take the opportunity to see it while you can.

3 stars

Susan Singfield

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