This is the second London outing for Polly Stenham's impressive 2007 debut That Face. Set in the thoroughly dysfunctional world of an ever more distressed upper middle-class family, where pill-popping and channel-hopping are the methods employed by the parents to deal with the children, we watch as things disintegrate, leading inexorably towards crisis point.
At just 90 minutes long, That Face is a watchable whirlwind of a play – certainly not perfect in the writing or the structure but still a fascinating character study of a family in meltdown. Absent dad Hugh has moved to the Far East with his new family, while mum Martha sucks son Henry, who is only really trying to help, into a deeply disturbing mother-son relationship. Meanwhile, daughter Mia is left to her own devices at school, with messy, dangerous results.
As Mia, forced back into the family fold after an ill-thought out ‘hazing' incident, stuck between an absent father, an uncaring mother and a ever-more disturbed brother, Stephanie Hyam really is the stand-out here. Her performance is assured and well developed, roaringly furious where it needs to be and subtle as Mia's world finally collapses, showing the child behind the teenage bravado. Hyam is clearly destined for big things.
Rory Fleck Byrne's enjoyable Henry is certainly the ‘beautiful boy' mentioned in the script – a more obvious choice than the angular charms of original Henry Matt Smith. Unfortunately, he hasn't fully accessed the disintegrating core of Henry's psyche just yet. He's too grounded early on, too sober when he should be drunk, although he excels at Henry's final, wonderfully impassioned speech ("How's your soldier boy now, Mummy?/HOW'S YOUR SOLDIER BOY NOW?"), showing then the emotional turmoil and mental collapse Henry has been heading towards since the beginning of his terrible journey. More of this, please, Rory?
Perhaps this is why Henry and Martha's weirdly sexual relationship doesn't quite convince – the dynamic between Fleck Byrne and Catherine Wildi (perfectly cast as Mia's mother – she and Hyam look impressively alike) could do with a little tweak. Interestingly, the real sparks fly when dad Hugh (Tony Donnelly), a sometime benevolent, sometime furious force for change, finally appears to save the day and send Martha to rehab – these two have excellent chemistry.
So it's not a perfect play, or a perfect show, but Stenham's sad, sarky and sexy debut still stands up to scrutiny, six years on. Thank goodness for that.