Sunday, 17 November 2013

Theatre review: That Face

When That Face made its debut all the publicity was inevitably about the fact that it was written by a 19-year-old. Six years after it premiered Polly Stenham is an established name with a loose trilogy of plays puncturing the smug (and frequently incontinent) upper-middle classes, so this first London revival is an opportunity to see her first work on its own terms. Of course, the concerns of a teenage girl who went to boarding school are not a surprising place for the story to kick off: Alice (Imogen Byron) is a newcomer who's been tied up by her head of house Izzy (Georgina Leonidas) and her friend Mia (Stephanie Hyam) in a cruel initiation prank. But Mia goes one irresponsible step further: Before the prank she secretly dosed the 14-year-old up with Valium, in what turns out to be an overdose that sends Alice into a coma.

The source of the drugs was Mia's mother, and the possibility of her expulsion sheds an overdue spotlight on their home life. Following their divorce, Hugh (Tony Donnelly) moved to Hong Kong and started a new family, while Henry and Mia were left with their mother Martha (Caroline Wildi.) 18-year-old Henry (Rory Fleck-Byrne) has left school, ostensibly to study art but really to look after the alcoholic, pill-popping, helpless Martha.

Tara Robinson's production is the first time I've ever seen the Landor Theatre be reconfigured from its usual wide thrust, here into a traverse that works well for the space and focuses, in Rachel Stone's design, entirely on the double bed that serves as the dorm room from the opening, a cleverly-staged restaurant table, and most importantly the setting of Martha and Henry's quasi-Oedipal relationship. Hyam and Fleck-Byrne are very strong as the fucked-up kids, the latter giving the nuance needed to the young man who's been simultaneously infantilised and turned into his mother's carer, leading to the play's infamous climax. The adults aren't quite as well-drawn, and I was distracted by Donnelly looking more like an ageing rock star than a globetrotting businessman, but at least Hugh is a fairly small part.

Perhaps because of the limitations of staging the play in a fringe venue, the other notorious element of the original production is here staged more conventionally, and thus less effectively: The story's climax sees Henry (SPOILER ALERT!) crack under the various pressures and piss himself, leading to what was described in 2007 as Matt Smith's Astonishing Coup de Théâtre, when he did it for real. Fleck-Byrne instead obviously uses a fake bladder, meaning he has to grab at his crotch to release the liquid manually - today resulting in a bit of a splash rather than the intended trickle. In fact this is where the traverse staging starts to look like a mistake, as the audience on the opposite side to us were looking at his back and might well not have registered what was even meant to be happening. Obviously, whether the watersports element is real or not isn't really the most important thing about the play, but it does mean the climax is a bit of a damp (pardon the pun) squib. And I don't think Fleck-Byrne will ever get given the keys to the TARDIS if he can't even pee on cue.

But even if the theatre smells a bit better than it should by the end, an increasing pile of litter does build up around the central bed that helps symbolise the play's chaos, and Robinson's production is effective, cementing That Face as having value outside of its original "schoolgirl playwright" gimmick.

That Face by Polly Stenham is booking until the 1st of December at the Landor Theatre.

Running time: 1 hour 25 minutes straight through.

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