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 The Theatreguide.London Review


That Face
Duke of York's Theatre Summer 2008

Transferring from the Royal Court, where it had a run in the upstairs theatre last year, Polly Stenham's family drama is a very impressive first play, even if it doesn't fully escape some of the limitations inherent in a beginner's work.

That the teenage son and daughter of an alcoholic pill-popping mother and an absent father are damaged by the circumstances of their life may not be surprising, but Stenham takes us beyond the obvious to discover the unexpected forms their emotional and psychological scars take.

The daughter drifts into rather ordinary adolescent rebelliousness and yet surprises herself and us with a moral core that knows where the too-far line is. The son commits himself to caring for his mother, even though that sucks him ever deeper into her neuroses, and it is almost too late that he discovers that he has so much invested in making her well that failure or passing the burden on to another are equally unthinkable options.

Such insights are the backbone of the play, along with characterisations and performances that make all the characters, however bizarre, thoroughly believable.

The play's biggest weakness is trouble finding its focus, and it isn't until more than halfway through its 80 minutes that the author seems to decide (or realise) that what we've been seeing as a supporting role is actually at the centre, and that a character we've seen primarily in relation to others is actually having the deepest and most shattering emotional journey.

Lindsay Duncan exposes all the mother's devouring neediness while also leaving ambiguous just how much is real and how much a mad manipulation of those willing to be manipulated.

Matt Smith takes us into the unexpected depths of the son's emotional turmoil, while Hannah Murray more aloofly lets us discover that there's more to the daughter than first appears.

Julian Wadham as the man who made himself an outsider and now must try to play father, and Catherine Steadman as a school friend who doesn't have the daughter's excuse to be as screwed-up as she proves to be provide solid support.

All are directed with sensitivity by Jeremy Herrin, who also guides the transfer from in-the-round to on-stage with little loss of intimacy or power.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review - That Face - Duke of York's 2008