The cast and creative team of That Face celebrated the show’s year-long journey from the intimate Royal Court Jerwood Theatre Upstairs to the West End last Friday, when Polly Stenham’s debut play opened at the Duke of York’s.
Written when Stenham was just 19, this often funny but ultimately harrowing play focuses on a dysfunctional upper middle class family, headed by alcoholic mother Martha, played by Lindsay Duncan. While daughter Mia runs wild with her mother’s drugs at boarding school, son Henry has dropped out of school to try to hold things together at home. After Mia’s school threatens to expel her, father Hugh flies back from his second family in Hong Kong to find a trio caught in the grip of unhealthy, incestuous, addictive emotion.
Duncan and the rest of the cast – which includes Matt Smith (Henry), Hannah Murray (Mia) and Julian Wadham (Hugh) – arrived swiftly at the after show party at Soho’s Studio Valbonne, along with playwright Stenham and director Jeremy Herrin, where they talked about the experience of transferring the play.
Speaking to Official London Theatre, Duncan commented: “It’s just different, going from a very small space with the audience on four sides – and it’s so intimate, it’s only two rows deep at most – and here we are in a conventional space. You haven’t got the intimacy where people can actually see you breathe. But one of the benefits is that everything is at a distance, [so] people feel they can laugh more, people are more comfortable. And I think we’ve always known there is a lot of humour in the play; even though it’s raw and it’s painful, it’s very funny and that’s been proved in the previews. People are more comfortable about laughing and I think that’s actually great for the play.”
Director Herrin added: “I think we did a really nice job Upstairs at the Royal Court, but it was in the round, so it’s been full of really interesting challenges, actually getting it to the [Duke of York’s] theatre. The journey over the previews has been really amazing. When we first did it in previews, there was nothing wrong with the show, the actors were fantastic and they were in character and the production was working, but there was something about it that wasn’t quite connecting with the audience. So [we did] lots of tiny calibrations, giving the audience permission to get the story.”
With only one new cast member for the West End run – 18-year-old Murray, making her stage debut as Mia – Herrin said he was glad to have the cast back together, a year on from the play’s premiere at the Royal Court. “Lindsay Duncan is like the best actress I’ve ever worked with; phenomenal, amazingly skilled and has an incredible delicacy. The pairing of her experience and skill with Matt’s emotional rawness, and the two of them feeding each other, it’s been an honour. Really easy to direct because they offer so much.”
Murray, who previously worked on teen television drama Skins, admitted she had been scared by the idea of theatre, but the experience of joining the existing cast had been enjoyable. “Everyone was really great about it; I didn’t feel separate or left out or anything like that. It was slightly more scary I suppose, because I knew everyone else had done it before. But no, I stopped worrying about that very soon.”
All the cast were complimentary about the talents of Stenham, who, at 21, has been commissioned by the Royal Court to write her second play after the award-winning success of That Face. Duncan said the role of Martha – named after another drunken monster, Martha in Edward Albee’s Whose Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? – was great to play because “it’s so well written”. She continued: “I’m in awe of Polly, I really am. I read the play and I think I phoned them within two hours to say I’m definitely up for this. Because it’s undeniable, it’s such a great play. I just can’t get over her skill. People have said to me this isn’t like a play, it’s structured like real life, and yet it’s fantastically theatrical as well. She’s got an enormous confidence about putting something on stage. She can write characters, she can write an age range. She’s written a set character of Martha, of my age, which is way beyond her experience, and yet I feel this woman is real.”
Herrin said working with Stenham had been a “fantastic” experience, adding: “I wanted Polly to be there, at rehearsals, I like having writers around because it’s their play and they’re the most important people, as far as I am concerned. But she felt totally confident with the production. So basically she set up a little office in the corner of the rehearsal room, and she would just sit and type and get on with writing whatever it was she’s writing now, but she’d be in the room so that I could say, ‘Polly what do you think about this bit?’ She’d come over and have a look at it and say, ‘no I like that’, and she’d go back to work. It was a very happy working relationship.”
However, Stenham, who last year won Most Promising Playwright at the Evening Standard Theatre Awards for That Face, seemed more than a little bemused by having her debut play staged in the West End, saying simply “It’s hilarious!”
That Face plays at the Duke of York’s until 5 July.