Polly Stenham's new play No Quarter, her third following the acclaimed That Face and Tusk Tusk, premiered at the Royal Court Theatre Upstairs this week (16 January 2013).
Picking up on themes that have recurred in Stenham's other plays, No Quarter delves into the relationship between a privileged son, who has left the real world behind, and his mother who has been dragged down with him.
The production is directed by Jeremy Herrin with design by Tom Scutt, and runs until 9 February.
It's been a long wait for Polly Stenham's third play, but well worth it... Elements of both former plays, That Face and Tusk Tusk, re-occur in Stenham's details of dysfunctional families, wayward teenagers, missing parents, drugs, spiked drinks and posh kids’ hedonism...But there's nothing re-heated about Stenham's writing. It's fresh, scabrous, often very funny...Noël Coward comes to mind again in a Hay Fever-like collision of family and guests in an orgiastic fancy dress party scene; as well as in the structural discipline of the piece... Sturridge's brilliant, compelling performance is made of a myriad tics and mannerisms, but is glued together with a deeply felt sense of purpose and lack of self-esteem, while Jeremy Herrin's superb production – the high-beamed studio is used by designer Tom Scutt to convey the timbered, cluttered, Edwardian gothic scale of a house past its prime – has the combined impact of Stephen Beresford's The Last of the Haussmans and Alan Bennett's People. What a terrific new play to start the New Year..
...Stenham is back with another lacerating blast from her customary upper-middle-class moneyed milieu... It’s a mad, modern spin on the traditional country house drama, like Agatha Christie on speed, and is marshalled with verve by Jeremy Herrin, the director of the moment. Like the play, Sturridge’s performance is weird and wild and winding and wonderful; he’s an exciting and frightening actor who shouldn’t be allowed to absent himself so frequently from our stages. He glides effortlessly through the script’s occasional bagginess and there is wonderful support from Joshua James as an affected young aesthete. Stenham is that rare thing, a truly exciting writer. Her plays could do with some editing, but her work is scintillatingly alive. There will, no doubt, be new writing this year that is neater or better structured, but it is hard to envisage anything providing this kind of mainlining thrill.
...There is no doubt that Stenham creates a compelling protagonist in Robin... While Stenham's ambivalent attitude to her hero is one of the play's strengths, I feel Robin's attacks on the cash nexus would have more force if he had ever had to work for a living. Stenham also falls back too easily on the old trope that it's really the older generation that's to blame...It's far from a perfect play, but Jeremy Herrin's production shifts naturally between quietude and pandemonium, and Tom Scutt's design occupies every inch of the tiny Theatre Upstairs with enough bric-a-brac to keep The Antiques Roadshow going for years. Tom Sturridge also successfully captures both the little-boy-lost aspect of Robin and the ruthless egoist, and there is excellent support from Maureen Beattie as his wandering mother and from Joshua James and Zoe Boyle as the twinned toffs. There is no doubt that Stenham can write. But, beyond the poisoned nest of family life, there is a world elsewhere.
...Portrayed with a despairingly decadent, scowling flamboyance by Tom Sturridge... Herrin has gathered an excellent cast for this anarchic shindig – including Taron Egerton as a drug-dealing ex-squaddie who seems to be nursing a ludicrous crush for our hero and Zoe Boyle and Joshua James as the posh pervy twins who have been sent on a Rosencrantz and Guildenstern mission by Robin's older, responsible MP brother. But though the piece is filled with good jokes and is artfully structured, I found myself overwhelmingly irritated by Robin, whose pose of romantic rebellion seemed to me, despite Sturridge's fine performance, comprehensively non-seductive or pitiable. True, when the brother moralises at length at the end about his sibling's selfishness, we know something that he doesn't which complicates our estimate. But this still doesn't muster the requisite ambivalence. Nor does No Quarter break any new ground.
Sturridge... gives a determined and subtle performance... But Stenham, whose hit debut was That Face, reiterates her theme of lousy posh mothers while giving little credibility to the damaged son... Forty minutes in I would willingly have beaten them both to death with one of the stuffed pheasants... Jeremy Herrin directs with more brio than the text deserves: there is coked-up swinging from the chandelier, violent piano-playing, an axe, a metronome, a dead rabbit and a vintage air-raid siren. In the final minutes Stenham hastily offers a back-story explaining why Robin is a mess. Too little, too late. The play purports to complete a “trilogy about growing up”, but only feels selfconsciously, tediously louche... When Robin excoriates modern life and enthuses about woodland we sense a feeble echo of Jerusalem without the magic. And the druggy interludes are reminiscent only of those gossip-sheets about titled degradation, blue blood on the needles and posh corpses on the Axminster. Glum, cold stuff.
This is not the first play from the Royal Court recently which has attacked the extravagance, the moral squalor, of the daisy-chain, Sixties-liberal brigade and their druggy ways. Miss Stenham gives the argument plenty of welly, or at least she does once she reaches the second act... The play’s opening 20 minutes are dreadfully slow and could do with rewriting. That, or director Jeremy Herrin needs a kick up the backside... Miss Stenhem is arguing that the privileged people in our country have lost their sense of duty and have forgotten to set an example. Good for her. Twenty-first century Britain, like this increasingly wrecked house, is falling to pieces thanks to the moral incontinence of the baby-boomers... This is an important piece of work from a clearly gifted writer.