THAT FACE

The Jewish Chronicle - - ARTS&BOOKS -

Duke of York’s Theatre, Lon­don WC2

I DID not see Polly Sten­ham’s de­but play about a posh dys­func­tional fam­ily when it ap­peared last year at the Royal Court. But I sus­pect that this trans­fer from the Court’s tiny theatre up­stairs — where the au­di­ence would have felt the full im­pact of the play’s sor­did scenes — to the Duke of York’s larger stage, where Jeremy Her­rin’s pro­duc­tion has been en­dowed with West End pro­duc­tion val­ues, has re­sulted in a case of more is less.

Sten­man’s cho­sen ter­ri­tory is the strong­est jus­ti­fi­ca­tion yet of the Royal Court’s de­ci­sion to turn its gaze from the work­ing to the mid­dle classes. Mia (Han­nah Murray) and Izzy (Catherine Stead­man) are two board­ing-school teenagers who go too far with their bul­ly­ing ini­ti­a­tion cer­e­mony. Mia has used her mother’s tran­quilis­ers on their vic­tim (Re­becca Eve) and it ap­pears that Izzy has beaten her up.

The play’s open­ing tor­ture-porn scene would seem to her­ald a drama about an amoral gen­er­a­tion. But when the ac­tion moves from the dorm to the bed­room of Mia’s di­vorced mother, Martha (Lind­say Dun­can), the moral deficit is re­vealed to be the par­ents’ — not the chil­dren’s.

In Martha, Sten­ham has cre­ated a drunk ma­nip­u­la­tor who could out­drink and out-ma­nip­u­late even her name­sake in Ed­ward All­bee’s Who’s Afraid of Vir­ginia Wolf? But the dra­matic core of the play lies in Martha’s de­struc­tive, even Oedi­pal re­la­tion­ship with her 18-year-old son Henry (Matt Smith) whom she uses to fill the gap in her life, and in her bed, left by her ex. With it, Sten­ham has cre­ated the latest in a line of dra­matic mother/son re­la­tion­ships where, like Gertrude and Ham­let, and Coward’s Nicky and Florence, they ex­press love through in­tense con­fronta­tion. Dun­can’s swag­ger­ing and sar­donic Martha is su­perbly sup­ported (in more ways than one) by Smith’s achingly vul­ner­a­ble Henry. When his rich fa­ther Hugh (Ju­lian Wad­ham) be­lat­edly at­tempts to stop the dam­age to his chil­dren caused by his cal­lous ab­sence and his ex-wife’s self­ish pres­ence, the play even has shades of O’Neal’s Long Day’s Jour­ney Into Night.

Like the best writ­ers, Sten­ham can al­lude to great works with­out com­pro­mis­ing the orig­i­nal­ity of her voice. ( Tel: 0870 060 6623)

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