It’s an odd thing, transfers that don’t quite live up to what all the fuss was about. Although Polly Stenham’s first play That Face – a product of the Royal Court’s Young Writers Programme, first seen in the Theatre Upstairs in April last year – is clearly the work of a fine new talent, it hasn’t really hit the West End with a hurricane force.

Jeremy Herrin’s production has lost some of its engaging messiness in the Upstairs, where we literally sat around the bed as Lindsay Duncan’s raddled Martha in a pink negligee boozily clung onto her own teenage son Henry, and her daughter Mia tried to keep things together.

The various locations were picked out in a lighting plot by Natasha Chivers that took us to various locations, whereas now both Chivers’ work and the design of Mike Britton is streamlined into a grey sleek uniformity. The acting, too, seems remote from the audience.

The play is too fast and sharp for its own good, with little sense of emotional development. Upstairs, this was its strength. At the Duke of York’s, Duncan’s performance hasn’t expanded to fill the house, it’s too introverted, while the opening “torture” scene in the girls’ school dormitory is exposed as too slight, and suddenly all over.

Mia’s friend Alice (Rebecca Eve) has been forcibly over-dosed, but the recovery of that situation does not now seem to blend with the other action all that well, which narrows down to Martha’s desperation, Henry’s helplessness and Mia’s interventions. Mia is now played by a blank-eyed Hannah Murray, whose credits include Skins on Channel 4 and the new Martin McDonagh movie In Bruges.

She’s very good, Murray, but she looks like a whacked-out 15-year-old instead of a wired-up 18-year-old. Matt Smith as Henry, tall and expressively energetic, confirms his prodigious promise, Julian Wadham turns up again smoothly as an aghast Hugh from his second marriage in Japan, and Catherine Steadman is still initiating jealous “sexploits” as Henry’s girlfriend Izzy, Alice’s tormentor.

If anything, the play needed to be written out more. It certainly should have been designed differently. And I simply don’t see how anyone could be happy about being charged more than £20 (the top-price seat is £45) for such a short (barely 85 minutes), slightly disappointing transfer.

- Michael Coveney


NOTE: The following FOUR-STAR review dates from April 2007 and this production’s original dates at the Royal Court Jerwood Theatre Upstairs.

The Young Writers Programme at the Royal Court is in the middle of a purple patch. It has already provided two of the most promising new plays of the year, Bola Agbaje’s Gone Too Far! and Alexandra Wood’s The Eleventh Capital. The latest play from this admirable scheme, That Face, may well be the best of them all.

Author Polly Stenham is just twenty years old – she was part of the YWP writers’ group in 2005 – and this is her first play. She has been blessed with an amazing performance by Lindsay Duncan as a boozed-up, drug-raddled mother fixated on her own teenage son, and by the superb casting and direction of another notable new name, Jeremy Herrin (an associate director at Live Theatre, Newcastle).

But it is the technical accomplishment of the dialogue, line by line, and the sense of theatre in the play’s construction and thematic complexity that suggest a maturity way beyond Stenham’s years. And yet she is obviously writing, in the first place, out of a middle-class, privileged and decadent world she knows well. That world is one of girls’ boarding schools, peer group pressure, fractured family relationships, absentee parents, drugs and sexual promiscuity.

A shorthand summary would suggest some weird, callow amalgamation of early plays by Christopher Hampton and David Hare (When Did You Last See My Mother? meets Slag), Noel Coward’s The Vortex and Eugene O'Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night. We start in a girls’ dormitory where Mia (Felicity Jones) and Izzy (Catherine Steadman) are “initiating” Alice (Abigail Hood) in a parody of a terrorist torture routine.

Apart from the violence inflicted, Alice has been force-fed a dangerous drug dose by Mia. Panic stations. In the next scene, Martha (Lindsay Duncan) is cuddling her own son, her “little soldier” Henry (Matt Smith), Mia’s brother, in bed. From this point, the well controlled plot unravels through domestic and hospital scenes to show Martha’s tragic decline, Henry’s “sexploits” with the scheming Izzy (jealousy, love bites and Martha cutting his clothes to shreds like a spurned lover), and Mia’s attempts to hold things together when her rich broker father Hugh (Julian Wadham) returns from Hong Kong, and his second family, to face the discordant music of the boudoir in a state of horrified denial.

Designer Mike Britton clears the Upstairs floor, placing the audience round the edge on skinny banquettes (recommended for trim buttocks only) and a big double bed in the middle. Natasha Chivers’ lighting is particularly good at adjusting the stage temperature and location through a big overhanging canopy and a series of peripheral light stations.

Matt Smith, awkward and loping, is finally transfigured in his mother’s night-dress and jewellery into a sobbing Oedipus, while Lindsay Duncan’s out-of-control, drunken, heavy-smoking Martha – feral, blasted, languorous and beyond redemption in a scarlet dress – is carted off like some latter-day Blanche DuBois. The whole thing is as shocking as it is upsetting; what on earth will Polly Stenham come up with next time? Whatever it is, I’m sure, will be worth seeing.

-Michael Coveney