Polly Stenham's first play paints a picture of a dysfunctional modern upper-middle class family. Dad is absent – immigrated to Hong Kong – Mum can't look after herself, let alone the rest of the family, elder son has dropped out of formal education and younger daughter is on the brink of expulsion from boarding school. Matthew Amer attended the press night of That Face at the Royal Court Jerwood Theatre Upstairs.
Never have girls in pyjamas and slippers looked more threatening than in the opening scene of That Face, when two such clad boarders have a masked school friend tied to a chair in the horrible refection of a torture scenario. Of course, it is boarding school, so it is just a 'harmless initiation ritual', until it becomes apparent that the hostage has been drugged by Mia, the dysfunctional daughter, who eggs on her friend to reach a new height of viciousness.
Still, Mia is probably the best adjusted family member. Mum has a dependency on everything: valium, alcohol and her son Henry. Henry is just 18, but has been trying to be 'the man of the house' ever since his Dad left. Instead, he is like an eight-year-old in a position of responsibility, trying to care for his mother who wants him to be child, support and, on occasions, lover. Dad, who pops back from his second family in Hong Kong to sort out the spot of bother at home, is emotionally detached and does not really care.
That Face is a striking first play which captures a class and a time while painting a picture of a horribly distressing family. Lindsay Duncan, on her return to London theatre, stumbles across the stage, playing the continuously drunk or emotionally distraught mother without ever slipping into caricature.
Matt Smith as the childishly adult Henry, is a lolloping, crotch-holding overgrown toddler, switching tack on the whim of his Mummy, while Felicity Jones presents a calculating Mia who wants to save the only relationship possible of salvaging, that between her and Henry.
At the launch of his first season as Artistic Director of the Royal Court, Dominic Cooke talked about producing more plays set in the world of the middle classes which form much of the Court's audience. In Stenham's new voice, he has found a writer who could serve him in this role for years to come.
That Face runs at the Royal Court Jerwood Theatre Upstairs until 19 May