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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at the Royal Court


  Tom Sturridge and Joshua James/ Ph: Johan Persson

Polly Stenham wrote her first play, That Face, when she was 19, and completed her second a few years later. That Face transferred to New York on waves of adulation from British critics, who praised its swaggering detonation of middle-class parenting complacency and the way it explored how a private education can’t protect children against a deeply dysfunctional upbringing. Tusk Tusk, like its predecessor, also centered on a mother with mental health issues, although, unlike That Face, one without a queasily intimate relationship with her teenage son. Yet in its depiction of three siblings trying in their childish way to protect their AWOL mother by making sure social services don’t realise she has temporarily abandoned them, it showed a new nark of maturity for this fearless writer in her dramatic journey through the enchanted, serpent-infested playground of childhood.

Now comes her third, No Quarter, which Stenham herself describes as the last in a loose trilogy about growing up. Yet although Stenham may well have needed to write this play (it’s dedicated to her recently deceased mother), that doesn’t make it one that necessarily needs to be seen. In fact, it could be cruelly described as an adolescent fusion of That Face and Tusk Tusk with some crude political grandstanding thrown in, and in brute terms, nowhere near as good.

It takes place in a consciously eccentric country house, the sort of grandly dilapidated place where books vie for wall space with stuffed stag heads and a suit of armour lolls in the corner. Robin is the self-styled king of this particular castle, a troubled adolescent and, possibly, musical genius who has lived here in – again – queasy proximity with his unstable, probably mad and certainly extremely willful mother Lily (Maureen Beattie). Now her mind has collapsed so gravely that she has escaped the nursing home where she was recently installed and come back to Robin, who has agreed to help her kill herself, unbeknown, unsurprisingly, to Robin’s sanctimonious, elder brother Ollie (Patrick Kennedy), who is frantic over her disappearance,

An overwrought bundle of themes, to be sure, and Stenham gives very few of them much subtlety. Robin (an often extremely good Tom Sturridge) is clearly meant to represent the privileged, narcissist, irresponsible voice of the modern generation, one admittedly brought up by an equally selfish generation yet with the added burden of having inherited their economically and environmentally screwed world. Robin and his posh friends’ reaction to the England stretching beyond their gilded doorstep is to drink it out of sight and mind. A particularly tedious drawn-out middle scene depicts a party with everyone out of their heads on drugs and rave music. Obviously Ollie, a naively idealistic MP, offers the counter point of view; he is disgusted by his brother and his affected, artistically minded nihilism.

Part of the problem is Jeremy Herrin’s production. After such a sharp, alert director of Stenham’s two previous plays, he here indulges No Quarter’s worst excesses. The crucial scene where Robin helps his mother has almost no dramatic weight – so much so that’s not until it’s barely over that you realise what has happened. Long parts of this short show are simply boring. Sturridge is great at conveying Robin’s feral, unhinged, two-fingers attitude, but the occasional, barely perceptible flashes of vulnerability are not enough to show what his crazy upbringing has really cost him. His epic self-involvement is clearly Stenham’s point, but it’s hardly the stuff of involving drama.

Stenham is an extremely funny writer, and also capable of an almost otherworldly, innocent tenderness. Some of the lines here are crackingly beautiful. London is described as full of people walking "around with their faces glowing like ghosts because they’re all staring down at screens." But while one valid criticism is that she has written the same play three times now, another, more damaging one is that this play suffers most precisely at the point at which it departs the intense mother-son territory of her previous two and becomes a clumsy rant about the dire state of the world. In a less gifted writer, perhaps this would be less of a problem. Still, much better that Stenham’s third play is a dud, rather than her second. Personally, I’m quietly optimistic about her fourth.


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