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Review Round-up: Stenham Saves West End Face

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Polly Stenham’s multi award-winning debut play That Face received its long-awaited West End transfer on Friday (9 May 2008, previews from 1 May), opening at the Duke of York’s theatre for a limited season until 5 July (See Also Today’s 1st Night Photos). In the West End, original cast members Lindsay Duncan, Matt Smith, Julian Wadham and Catherine Steadman are joined by Skins star Hannah Murray.

That Face was written by Stenham as part of the Royal Court’s Young Writers Programme which she attended in 2005 when she was just 19 years old. Now 21, Stenham is working on the script for a screen transfer of the play which won the Evening Standard and Critics’ Circle Awards for Most Promising Playwright and the TMA Award for Best Play.

Jeremy Herrin directs this portrait of an affluent family in freefall which is billed as a “comic exploration of children who become parents to their parents”. The drugged and boozed-up Martha (Duncan) is fixated on her teenage son and oblivious to the boarding school terror tactics exerted by her teenage daughter, Mia. Duncan last appeared in the West End six years ago in 2001, in Private Lives and Kevin Elyot’s Mouth to Mouth, which also transferred from the Royal Court Upstairs. Lighting is by Natasha Chivers and design from Mike Britton.

Stenham’s talent was commended all over again following the West End opening. Critics were unanimous in their agreement that That Face is “clearly the work of a fine new talent” with a confident grasp of her subject matter and “an ability to communicate pain and longing” that belies her age. Lindsay Duncan and Matt Smith were also praised for their “brilliance”, creating a winning combination of “vigour in the writing” and “passion in the playing”. Jeremy Herrin's direction received more varied remarks, with some appreciating his “admirably Spartan production” while others felt that at times he had allowed the play to feel “underpowered” in its new home.

  • Michael Coveney on Whatsonstage.com (three stars) - “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 the engaging messiness it had Upstairs. There, 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. If anything, the play needed to be written out more. It certainly should have been designed differently.”
    • Michael Billington in the Guardian (four stars) – “Forget all the hype about Polly Stenham, at 21, being the youngest West End debutant since Christopher Hampton. What matters is that her 90-minute play, first seen at the Royal Court Theatre, has a quality of emotional desperation one more often associates with mature American dramatists like Tennessee Williams and Edward Albee than with cool young Brits. This is also one of the first English-language plays I can recall to deal explicitly with mother-son incest. Stenham's god-given gift… is an ability to communicate pain and longing. The most moving aspect of the play is Martha's morbid fixation with her son. Lindsay Duncan brings to the role a blanched beauty and dreamy sensuality... Duncan's brilliance is matched by Matt Smith whose hapless Henry is both one of those whom Oedipus wrecks and a residual snob who greets his returning father with ‘you reek of duty-free’. Jeremy Herrin's admirably spartan production, deftly designed by Mike Britton, contains highly accomplished performances from Hannah Murray as the casually sadistic Mia and Julian Wadham as the defective dad.”
    • Simon Edge in the Daily Express (four stars) – “When Polly Stenham’s Oedipal drama about a scarily dysfunctional upper-middle-class family was first performed at the Royal Court’s tiny Upstairs theatre, the 20-year-old playwright was garlanded with ‘most promising’ awards. Now the play has transferred to the West End, it is clear she deserved the acclaim. There are times when Jeremy Herrin’s production seems underpowered. The comic part of the writing struggles to get through and some of the younger performers may be better suited to the original, smaller space. But that should not detract from the achievement of this intensely moving, skilfully crafted piece. A modern successor to Tennessee Williams or Edward Albee, Stenham isn’t just promising. She has already delivered on it, and she would deserve the acclaim even if she were twice her age.”
    • Charles Spencer in the Daily Telegraph - “When That Face opened at the Royal Court Theatre Upstairs in April 2007, I described it as one of the most astonishing dramatic debuts I had seen in more than 30 years of reviewing. Watching this West End transfer, the play seems every bit as fresh, passionate and blackly comic the second time around. Matt Smith is outstanding as the 18-year-old Henry, who is so pitiably desperate to save his mother from herself - his final scene of emotional collapse is shattering in its intensity. There is strong support, too, from Julian Wadham as the businessman father whose culpable absence has allowed the family's breakdown to fester; from Hannah Murray as the daughter on the verge of expulsion from her posh school, and Catherine Steadman as her cruel friend. All of which might sound excessively grim. The startling paradox of That Face, however, is that there is so much vigour in the writing, so much passion in the playing, that one leaves the theatre feeling strangely exhilarated.”
    • Nicholas de Jongh in the Evening Standard (four stars) – “That Face... generates such emotional power because it faces up unflinchingly to the consequences of a mother/son incestuous bond. This is the first play on the subject by an English author since Noel Coward’s more oblique treatment in The Vortex. It has the strange, uncomfortable ring of truth about it. Incest becomes the defining symptom of a rich, privileged, middle-class family in crisis and dysfunctional collapse. Although the dormitory incident beggars belief, betraying Stenham’s immaturity, she handles the incest theme with assurance. In Jeremy Herrin’s powerful, expressionistic production, a centre-stage bed is the single stage property. Here lies Henry’s mother, Lindsay Duncan’s Martha, a glazed alcoholic and blanched, petulant blonde, with something of several Tennessee Williams heroines about her. In spellbinding scenes that steer a wavering line between black comedy and a drama of erotic possessiveness… Matt Smith’s virtuoso performance makes it clear that Henry’s life rather than Martha’s has been ruined.”
    • Benedict Nightingale in The Times (four stars) “That Face... has its prolix and its overstated moments, but it impressed everyone when it launched Stenham's career at the Royal Court's Theatre Upstairs last year. With reason too, since it catches the confusions of an Ab Fab-style family that's clearly been disintegrating since the father, Julian Wadham's Hugh, remarried and absconded to Hong Kong. Is it plausible that an 18-year-old would ditch his academic prospects to look after his awful mother explaining, ‘She's my life’? Well, Matt Smith has the emotional intensity to make you buy it. This gangling, gawky actor gives a performance to match the excellent Duncan. Certainly Stenham comes up with a denouement that, this being 2008, outdoes The Vortex for rawness. The expletives fly as Smith's Henry, dramatising his Oedipal agonies by wearing his mother's nightie, rages at his father, his mother, his life, everything. And the conclusion? A surprisingly conservative one, I think. Even highly sophisticated adolescents need their parents. Sane, sensible parents. Two of them.”

      - by Melissa Rynn & Kate Jackson

      ** DON’T MISS our Whatsonstage.com Outing to THAT FACE on 27 May 2008 – including an EXCLUSIVE post-show Q&A with Polly Stenham & cast – click here to book now! **

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