The hoopla about Polly Stenham’s first play, That Face, tends to focus on her age when she wrote it (she was just 19 when it premiered at the Royal Court) so it was interesting to read it today without the attendant fuss and get a feel simply for the words on the page.
That Face is a play about a seriously dysfunctional family, codependency and female bullying. At the play’s heart (the spider in the web) is Martha. She’s alcoholic, drug dependent and reliant on her son to get her through the day … and the night. Mia, her daughter, is about to be expelled from school for drugging and torturing a younger girl in a sick initiation rite and Henry, her son, is trying to save Martha from herself and another round of institutionalisation.
It’s bleak material, written with no holds barred and not a trace of sentimentality. The lines are quick, pointed and often funny. The play is well constructed and, although the payoff is obvious from almost the beginning, it still manages to shock in places.
From the opening scene with a young girl tied to a chair while two older girls torture her, That Face sets out to confront and challenge audiences. But because it chooses a dysfunctional family as its main focus, it runs up against the many dark family dramas already out there. Whether Edward Albee, Sam Shepard or Tennessee Williams, the goal posts are set ridiculously high.
That the dysfunctional family in That Face is British, upper class and moneyed is one distinction. That Polly Stenham wrote it while still so young is the major distinction. She is clearly an amazing talent. I hope the accolades and comparisons to playwriting’s greatest don’t freeze her in her tracks before she has a chance to really hit her stride.
Published by Faber and Faber
Cast: 4F, 2M