Stellar young writer Polly Stenham's new play Tusk Tusk, the follow-up for her multi award-winning debut That Face, premiered at the Royal Court last week, reuniting the 22-year-old playwright with director Jeremy Herrin.
As with That Face, Stenham again places her focus on a dysfunctional family. Three children play hide-and-seek; 15-year-old Elliott wears a crown, 13-year-old Maggie wraps herself in silk and little Finn draws on the walls. Together they watch a mobile phone intensely, willing it to come to life. Whose call are they waiting for and why are they home alone?
The cast is led by young newcomers Toby Regbo and Bel Powley, also features Tom Beard, Finn Bennett, Georgia Groome, Caroline Harker and Austin Moulton. Jeremy Herrin (who also helmed That Face) directs, with design by Robert Innes Hopkins.
With a clutch of raves, Stenham certainly overcame 'difficult second play' syndrome with aplomb. “A magnificent follow-up”, “another success” and “confirms a startling, theatrical promise” were typical of the acclamations that adorned the overnight notices. Indeed, it was hard to find a criticism among the gushings, with Michael Billington's hope that the young playwright “one day breaks out of the jagged family circle” about as cutting as it got. The young cast also came in for a plethora of plaudits, director Jeremy Herrin successfully drawing out a series of “dazzling performances”, not least from the “absolutely brilliant” Regbo and Powley.
Michael Coveney on Whatsonstage.com (four stars) - “It’s always hard to follow a first big success with a second play, but Polly Stenham has pulled off a magnificent follow-up to That Face, mining a similar seam of personal material in her portrayal of three young siblings left to fend for themselves in a dysfunctional family … As before, Stenham reveals a natural talent both for articulating teenage angst and obduracy and for structuring her narrative so that an essentially inert situation retains theatrical momentum. Jeremy Herrin again proves an ideal director, and his casting is spot on. Young newcomers Toby Regbo and Bel Powley are absolutely brilliant, both irritating and heartbreaking, as Eliot and Maggie; neither they nor Stenham once sound a false note in charting their affection and rivalry.”
Charles Spencer in the Daily Telegraph (four stars) - “Second plays, like second albums and second novels, are notoriously difficult, but Stenham, now a grand old lady of 22, has another success on her hands … Considering the bleak subject matter Tusk Tusk is often remarkably funny, as well as exceptionally touching … Jeremy Herrin directs a persuasive and gripping production and the acting by the two teenage leads, both making their professional stage debut, is outstanding. They bring out every ounce of sarky humour in Stenham's script, but also capture a sense of growing desperation that leads to moments of cruelty. There are some neat plot developments and Stenham's ability to move in an instant from laughter to utter desolation marks her out as a dramatist of distinction.”
Nicholas de Jongh in the Evening Standard (four stars) - “What a remarkable, bright young thing Polly Stenham is! After her precocious debut at 19, with the award-winning That Face, this second play confirms a startling, theatrical promise, though it returns to the terrain of the first … There are faint but distinct echoes of William Golding’s Lord of the Flies (Eliot’s red Indian call in particular) and Ian McEwan’s The Cement Garden, where kids on their own turn anything from primitive to strangely alienated … It is only after two adults - friends of the mother - make a late, surprise appearance that Tusk Tusk takes wing. Thanks to the closing scene … Stenham manages to bring this dark comedy of wrecked family relations to a riveting conclusion.”
Michael Billington in the Guardian (four stars) - “Stenham's play is an eloquent study in escalating anxiety. At first, 15-year-old Eliot, 14-year-old Maggie, and their seven-year-old brother Finn seem able to cope with their mother's defection. Eliot makes brief sorties into the outside world to buy food and date a girl, while Finn plays Maurice Sendak comic-book games. But soon it becomes clear that the three kids are hopelessly entrapped. They are dependent on the phonecall from the mum that never comes ... Behind the play, I sense an unhealed private wound. But, far from being unrelieved gloom, the play offers a stoic tribute to sibling resilience. Not since Peter Pan have I seen a play so much about the crying need for mother love. I only hope that Stenham, having exorcised her demons, one day breaks out of the jagged family circle.”
Quentin Letts in the Daily Mail (five stars) - “The dazzling performances of the four young actors involved ... make it hard to look away. Handsome Toby Regbo plays Eliot. Finn Bennett, aged nine, plays his namesake Finn. And then there is Miss Powley, face the shape of a teardrop, two eyes sadder than they deserve to be in one so young. She is utterly caught up in the role, the one worry perhaps being her voice. It sounds under-oiled and over-stretched. Jeremy Herrin, directing, has drawn amazing performances from his young cast, but he needs to look after his starlet's larynx … This angular, shouty cross between Home Alone and Lord Of The Flies is shocking for the right reasons. It should bite at our society's conscience.”
- by Katie Blemler & Theo Bosanquet