It's been a long wait for Polly Stenham's third play, but well worth it. This is a country house drama brought bang up to date, with Tom Sturridge as Robin, the Jimmy Porter of all disaffected whacked-out mother's boys, trying to renegotiate his relationship with his chaotic, alcoholic mater Lily (Maureen Beattie), before the ship goes down.
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; Tom has been home-schooled - he claims to be "landed gypsy" - and has dropped out of music college and bonded with his tattooed coke supplier, a Scouse army veteran (Taron Egerton), sharing his birthday with his mother's memorial.
But there's nothing re-heated about Stenham's writing. It's fresh, scabrous, often very funny, the long mother and son scene (Lily, like Dorothy Parker, favours one margarita, two at the most; a third, and she's under the host) a variation on the That Face show-down between Lindsay Duncan and Matt Smith without the incest.
It's The Vortex updated. 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. The Eurythmics' "Sweet Dreams" is Lily's anthem, and Robin identifies the outside woodland whinnying as the state crying for its nanny.
This is also a play about choices. Robin's elder brother, Oliver (Patrick Kennedy), is the newly elected MP for Croydon North and represents social engagement, making money, being "real." Their differences boil down to a well-articulated argument about lifestyle; yet another aspect is embodied in the gorgeously decadent twins, Scout and Arlo (Zoe Boyle and Joshua James), who come to lure Robin back to the bright lights.
And then there is the devoted teenager, Coby (Alexa Davies), and the trainee local policewoman, Esme (Jenny Rainsford), who both pull at Robin's defunct sense of emotional commitment and come badly unstuck in the process; he's determined to keep the house and honour his mother, but he doesn't really know why or how.
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.
Photo: Tom Sturridge as Robin & Taron Egerton as Tommy (Johan Persson)