Friday 18 January 2013

Theatre review: No Quarter

Polly Stenham's first two plays made waves not just because of her age (she famously wrote That Face aged 19) but also because they punctured a popular image of well-adjusted middle class "normality." For her long-awaited (Tusk Tusk appeared back in 2009) third play the location has moved away from the suburban kitchens and bedrooms of her earlier efforts, but she hits her targets with similar levels of success. For No Quarter, designer Tom Scutt has configured the Royal Court Upstairs into a thrust, packed to the rafters with books, musical instruments and stuffed stag heads, the trappings of an upper-class rural life that's fallen on hard times. This remote manor house is where musical prodigy Robin (Tom Sturridge) was raised almost in isolation, and where he's now returned after dropping out of an exclusive music college.

No Quarter falls into two distinct sections with the first seeing Robin deal with his mother Lily (Maureen Beattie.) Slowly losing her mind, it gradually becomes apparent that Lily has asked her youngest son to help her commit suicide before her lucid periods are gone altogether. This sad scene between mother and son, shot through with moments of dark humour, is deliberate and slow but director Jeremy Herrin has brought out a dreamlike quality to it that I found rather hypnotic, and I was sucked in from early on.

The longer second act that sees Robin deal not only with the aftermath of his mother's death and funeral, but also the discovery that before dying she'd sold the house he expected to spend his life in, takes on a different tone, as his last night in the manor becomes a drug-fuelled party. Robin gets unexpected visits from Coby (Alexa Davies,) a teenage girl with a crush on him, Esme (Jenny Rainsford,) a childhood friend who's now taken a very different approach to life than him, and Scout (Zoe Boyle) and Arlo (Joshua James,) the affectedly eccentric twins who were his only friends at the music school. The only guest Robin's actually invited is Tommy (Taron Egerton,) the ex-army drug dealer he picked up (in exactly what capacity is somewhat ambiguous, as is much about Robin's sexuality) the night before.

I've seen a couple of people compare No Quarter to Jez Butterworth's Jerusalem, and I could see why in this second act as we see a diverse collection of characters flock around a charismatic central figure who plies them with drugs in a semi-rural setting. This charisma isn't something I'm convinced Sturridge really brought to the role, which is one of the few downsides of the production. He's stronger at making Robin the man-child raised as if in a fairytale (his name is a reference to Christopher Robin) by a mother obsessed with him, and as we discover more about his and Lily's past the threads to Stenham's earlier work become a bit more apparent. Although No Quarter does remain a different beast in many ways, its lead perhaps a more metaphorical figure for a generation raised with false expectations and left to pick up the pieces of their parents' mistakes, but lacking the skills to do so.

The supporting cast all do sterling work, Joshua James very funny in his cod-Warhol persona, his and Boyle's twisted relationship reaching a crescendo when they burst into an argument in a secret twin language of their own devising. Rainsford gets a lot of value out of a character who doesn't appear until pretty late in the action. And Egerton continues to move towards Big Favourite Round These Parts status with his Scouse bit of rough with a barely-concealed soft centre and frequent well-judged moments of comic timing. He also gets his top off a couple of times which, by the way, it took 10 shows into the year for some male nipples to get an airing? Buck your ideas up, 2013! (Egerton either had a spectacularly good Christmas or is going all Christian Bale method with his weight because only three months after he was required to wander around on stage in a speedo with a swimmer's body in The Last of the Haussmans he seems to have put on quite a few stone to play Tommy; not that this particularly put me off, if anything him looking less twinky means I don't feel as guilty for fancying him.)

The play is bookmarked by Robin talking to his older brother Olly (Patrick Kennedy,) a newly-elected MP and a character Stenham takes quite an interesting approach to by making him the unexpected source of a kind of optimism in a play that could have left a bleaker aftertaste than it does. Better, I thought, than That Face but not as impressive as Tusk Tusk, Stenham's third play certainly doesn't disappoint: It's a bit nebulous in style and themes, and could have done with a bit of editorial sharpening up, but overall it entertains, asks questions and leaves you with a strong impression.

No Quarter by Polly Stenham is booking until the 9th of February at the Royal Court's Jerwood Theatre Upstairs (returns and day seats only.)

Running time: 1 hour 55 minutes straight through.

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