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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at the Royal Court Jerwood Theatre Upstairs


  Toby Regbo and Bel Powley/Ph: Johan Persson

As proof that a much-ballyhooed writer's sophomore play can better the one that first put that dramatist on the map, along comes Polly Stenham's sorrowful, and wonderful, Tusk Tusk ,a play about parental abandonment that touches so profound a nerve that you're not entirely sure you want to surrender the experience in the brief, explosively appreciative moment that is the curtain call. Two years ago, Stenham shot to attention with That Face, a cleverly imagined variant on, among others, Noel Coward's The Vortex that allowed Lindsay Duncan and Matt Smith to claw away at one another as a mother and son locked into a disturbing, necessary, mutually destructive symbiosis. Remove a parent from the equation, and what do you have? The rending scenario on view for too short a run (through May 2) at the Royal Court Jerwood Theatre Upstairs, whereby Eliot (Toby Regbo), the oldest of three children (the character turns 16 in the course of the play), is forced into premature adulthood in the absence of an errant, clearly crazed mother and a father who has died of cancer. Part of the self-described "metrosexual warrior" that is Eliot wants simply to smoke and have sex, which doesn't account for the grievous throughline to a show in which the defining character, the absent, pill-popping mom, never shows up: Maybe she's off somewhere having a liaison with Godot?

It's in fact a shriek from Eliot's 14-year-old sister,Maggie (Bel Powley),that sets in motion a give-and-take between the two made up of protectiveness and fear, mutual suspicion and infinite need. One minute, Eliot is teasing Maggie about the onset of menstruation, the next he's playing dad in a makeshift London house in which sleep seems to happen mostly during the day and where a "proper" meal is cold Chinese food or, more likely, a packet of crisps and maybe some of the jam that their wayward mother has left as a culinary bequest. Complicating the siblings' rapport is their shifting level of attentiveness to youngest child, 7-year-old Finn (played at the performance caught by Austin Moulton, who shares the role with Finn Bennett), over whom they fret even as his naps get longer, his responsiveness ever more dulled. That role alone illustrates the onset of a kind of emotional autism with a bruising clarity I've never seen before - Moulton is scarily good in the part. Then again, I'm not sure I've ever seen as immediately engaging a presence as Regbo demonstrate an ability to shut down entirely in front of our eyes. Both Powley and Regbo are making their professional debuts in this play in a joint achievement that honors that too little heralded element of any successful play or film: the casting director, who here is Amy Ball.

Whereas That Face seemed to be reaching for effect from other, richer plays, Tusk Tusk recalls, say, the landscape of Jean Cocteau while blazing new ground in the demands it makes on a youthful cast whose ongoing schooling is the primary reason for so short an initial run. The back story is supremely well told, without those sodden passages of exposition on which so many more seasoned dramatists fall back. A discussion early on about the people for whom Eliot and Maggie may be named - T.S. Eliot, which seems reasonable enough - Maggie Thatcher rather less so - sketches in the social and political backdrop to a household that clearly once had quite a bit of money and is now down to its last 30 pounds. And without any overegging of incident, one feels the tug in Eliot and Maggie between the desire to preserve and hang on - not least to their mother's memory - but also to make a fresh start, away from the realm of discord and damage over which hangs the specter of social services coming<


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