Such was the success of Polly Stenham’s That Face, which has collected a clutch of awards since premiering at the Royal Court Jerwood Theatre Upstairs in 2007, that the young writer’s second play was always going to be heaped with pressure.
Less outrageous than her first offering, which included in-school torture and questionable parent/child relationships, Tusk Tusk is nonetheless a return to the world of upper middle class broken family relationships. It is a seam rich in intrigue and emotion for Stenham to explore.
The show begins with a bang, or rather a scream, emitted from Maggie, the middle child and only girl of a family who have recently moved home. The kitchen-come-living room, where the play’s action is staged, is littered with removal boxes –
some opened, some untouched – and, but for the sofa, table and dubious kitchen, looks barely liveable. But it is not just the furniture and cutlery that is missing; the three children, all under 16, are without parents.
What follows is part suburban Lord Of The Flies, part heartbreaking familial drama, as desperation, anger, guilt and fear drive the three siblings forward. Eldest son Eliot (Toby Regbo) focuses on trying to keep the family together, leading the way, yet still craves his mother’s affection while fighting the raging hormones of adolescence. Maggie (Bel Powley) is the most mature of the children, for whom their predicament is a reality that needs to be addressed, whose anger seeps out through a dark wit. Youngest child Finn (Finn Bennett) loses himself in the safety of play, yet it is often through him that the effects of living with abandonment can most clearly be seen.
Following the opening of Spring Awakening last week, another cast of youngsters making professional stage debuts deliver nuanced performances that belie their levels of experience.
Stenham’s script is rife with the authenticity of sibling banter and childhood coaxing. When Eliot tries to feed his younger brother cold Chinese for breakfast, he teases him into it by explaining that “rice is like cocopops for ninjas”. The wit brings a lightness and humour to a bleak home devoid of adult protection, but never short of love, as a distraught Maggie points out: “What brings you closer than sharing hell?”