Writer: Polly Stenham
Director: Josh Seymour
That Face, Polly Stenham’s debut play, written when she was 19 and first performed in 2007, still has the power to shock and astonish. It’s an electrifyingly intense tragicomedy of a family in meltdown. In the opening scene, Mia, the teenage daughter, and Izzie, her boarding school frenemy, are performing a grotesque initiation rite – later claiming it to be ‘traditional’ – in which they torment a new girl, handcuffed to a bed and hooded like a Guantanamo Bay prisoner.
Stenham fearlessly continues to provoke. The bed in the second scene belongs to Martha, Mia’s mother. She awakes badly hungover, promising the prone body of a young man that it won’t happen again. We discover it’s Henry, her eighteen-year-old son. Whether the implied incest is actual or psychological, the shock is the same. Yet we find ourselves laughing when Martha puts on a display of hysteria which she switches off when Henry leaves the room.
Laughter again freezes when Mia turns up at her mother’s, her school having expelled her for dosing her torture victim with valium. More shockingly, Martha’s reaction is one of fury – not about what Mia has done, but simply that she has shown up. ‘She always interrupts things,’ she says petulantly.
The pace under the direction of Josh Seymour never falters. The bed remains centre stage. The loud, disturbing music of George Dennis’s excellent sound design marks scene changes. A pulsing circle of lights designed by Jamie Platt mirrors the uneasy mood. More and more is revealed about this most dysfunctional of families. Their father abandoned them five years before, when Henry and Mia were 13 and 10, taking off for a new life in Hong Kong. He pays their school fees, but that’s all. More light is cast on Henry’s co-dependent relationship with the alcoholic Martha. While desperately trying to parent her, he has been drawn into this queasy lover/son relationship with her.
Niamh Cusack is mesmerising as the volatile, infantilized Martha, blazing with fury and seductive power. She is a brilliant comic actor too, cooing down the phone to the Speaking Clock, enjoying the fantasy of being offered a job. Astonishing too is newcomer Kasper Hilton-Hale, making his stage debut as Henry. He gives the role a powerful mixture of intensity, desperation and love as he remains forever at the mercy of Martha. Ruby Stokes, also making her stage debut, gives a completely convincing performance as Mia, hardened yet inwardly fragile, having been abandoned by both parents, while clinging to her conviction that her father will return and restore order.
If there is an issue with the play, it is its relentlessness. Starting at a high pitch of intensity, it has nowhere else to go. There is a marvellous moment when Hugh, the father, walks in on them, Henry now wearing his mother’s nightdress, begowned Martha swigging from a wine bottle. The audience hoots with cathartic laughter. In a way, the play could end here. But it continues through an ever more feverish fifteen minutes, spelling out what could easily be imagined about the catastrophic damage inflicted on the teenagers.
In addition, there’s a sense of privilege about That Face which doesn’t sit easily in the 2020s. In the end, it seems to come down to whether Martha will be treated in the privatised splendour of the Cromwell Hospital or sectioned on an NHS psychiatric ward. Stenham implies the latter would be a fate worse than death, but we long for Martha to receive professional care and a dose of reality.
Runs until 7 October 2023