Saturday, April 04, 2009

Tusk Tusk at the Royal Court


Polly Stenham’s new play Tusk Tusk feels very much like a companion piece or even a prequel to her debut, the acclaimed That Face.

It's near impossible to discuss Stenham without making reference to her youth, to the fact that That Face was written when she was 19 and, that when it transferred from the Royal Court to the Duke of York’s Theatre, she became the youngest woman ever to have a play staged in the West End.

The pressure to produce a second play of similar power must have been intense and she has chosen not to move away from the subject matter that gave birth to That Face but to mine it further, to dig deeper into the same ground.

Both plays deal with emotional neglect and the complexities of child-parent relationships, the crucial difference being that while the figure of the mother dominated the first play – as the vampiric centre of her son’s life – here the mother, though still a potent force in her children’s lives, is an absence rather than a presence.

Eliot, Maggie and their little brother Finn have been left alone. They have just moved in to a new London flat and their possessions are all still packed up in boxes. It quickly becomes clear that they have no idea where their mother is or when she will come back. They keep watching their phones, hoping she will call. Such vanishings are, we soon gather, not entirely unusual and, initially at least, they remain confident she will return. Their aloneness soon becomes a kind of game: they sleep through the day, they eat Chinese take out for breakfast and they use what little money they have to buy a strobe light. Their plight brings to mind the adult-less world of numerous children’s books, though with the added 21st century shadow of social services separating them if they find out about the situation; at one point Maggie even comments that their lives have become like a bad Enid Blyton novel.

Eliot, the oldest at fifteen, clearly needs to believe that their mother will return and that nothing is really amiss. Whenever fourteen year old Maggie attempts to talk of their mother’s pill-popping, her depressions, her unreliability, he bats her words aside. His tie to his mother is obviously a complex, mutually needy one; beneath the nonchalance he seems far more dependent on her than his sister. In this way the family dynamics – the doted-on boy child, the daughter pushed to the side – mirror those of That Face, though here there is no chance of the father arriving white knight style at the end to rescue them, as he’s dead, carried off by cancer when they were young. “Fucking cliché,” as Eliot says. The only adults that puncture this world are the intensely middle-class Katie and Roland, friends of the children’s mother – but they bring with them their own set of complications.

Stenham’s play feels, if anything, more sure of itself than That Face. Though her teenage characters converse with a level of eloquence that at times borders on the implausible, she creates a world in which it is possible to accept that. The sparring between the two older siblings is sometimes uneasily flirtatious, sometimes stubborn and silly; but beneath their volleys of “arrows tipped with wit” there are things that don’t quite sit right, little niggles. For one thing, if there mother has been this unstable and unreliable all their lives, it seems odd that they wouldn’t be better able to fend for themselves, practically as well as emotionally.

And then there’s Cassie, the girl Eliot briefly dallies with, who it is immediately apparent is from a less well off background then the main characters. Though quite thinly sketched in comparison, she is an interesting addition, a more grounded individual who has a job, who supports herself. We never learn what absences she has in her life. But, though one can see why Stenham included her, she feels like something of an interloper, both into the siblings’ self-circling world and within the play itself.

In the end the play survives by the performances of the young cast (all roughly the same ages as their characters). And the three siblings, who are rarely off stage, are pretty amazing. Toby Regbo, as Eliot, mixes adolescent bravado and self conscious coolness with something more desperate and dangerous. Bel Powley, as Maggie, seems older than her years yet also endearingly childish at times. Finn Bennett as seven year old Finn feels utterly at home on the stage.

Though the early scenes, when it seems the play will just consist of sibling bickering, cause alarm bells to ring, the play soon becomes something bigger, darker and more compelling. It does however definitely gain something from watching it with That Face relatively fresh in the memory.

Reviewed for musicOMH