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 The Theatreguide.London Review


Tusk Tusk
Royal Court Theatre Upstairs   Spring 2009

Polly Stenham's first play, the award-winning That Face, was about a teenage brother and sister trying to cope with a psychotic and drug-addled mother. Her new play is about a teenage brother and sister trying to cope with the absence of a psychotic and drug-addled mother.

If it's not quite as good a play, it does hold our interest throughout, while raising a provocative set of moral and emotional questions.

The two teenagers, along with their seven-year-old brother, have been abandoned by their mother and are determined to hide that fact from the world, because they know discovery will mean being taken into care and separated.

I am convinced that was the plot premise of some American movie of twenty years ago, but that version would have had a feel-good quality that is deliberately missing here.

Indeed, Stenham's central insight is that the kids can not possibly succeed and that the determination to keep what's left of the family together goes very far toward destroying it. The older boy's obsession with secrecy becomes almost as psychotic as his mother's copelessness, especially when he won't risk going to hospital when the child is accidentally wounded.

The dilemma of being compelled to a course of action even when you must constantly blind yourself to the evidence that it isn't working is powerfully dramatic, especially when the figures caught in that trap are little more than children themselves, without the resources to cope. This is the very strong core of the play, making one wish that the playwright had been more adept at presenting it.

The biggest problem with the text is a lack of efficiency and concentration. There is about twenty minutes' worth of plot and character exposition in the forty-five minute first act, the play simply taking too long to set up its situation, so that tension and energy dissipate rather than building toward the interval. And much the same thing happens in the second half, too many of the strong moments allowed to go on a little too long or waffle their way out of the intended intensity.

So, while you will come away from the play appreciating the no-way-out trap the young characters find themselves in, it will be more an intellectual understanding than a shared emotional experience.

There are a few secondary characters, but the bulk of the play is carried by newcomers Toby Regbo, Bel Powley and (alternating with another youngster) Finn Bennett. Guided by director Jeremy Herrin, they all give impeccable performances, capturing the courage, pain, bewilderment and Quixotic determination of youngsters way out of their depth.

If Polly Stenham's second play is almost inevitably a bit of a let-down after her impressive debut, it remains the work of a writer of sensitivity and insight, who simply has to develop a little more technical control.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review - Tusk Tusk - Royal Court 2009