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THAT FACE – Landor Theatre, London.

Back in 2007, Polly Stenham caused a furore with her debut play That Face. Not only did it mark a change of direction for the Royal Court by turning an unflinching gaze upon the upper-middle-class world familiar to many of its audience members – and exposing churning domestic relations, addiction, fractured psyches and mental health problems beneath the veneer of respectability that comes with wealth and status – but Stenham wrote the piece when she was only 19.

The Landor Theatre’s revival doesn’t benefit from the same shock factor, nor the star casting (Lindsay Duncan and Doctor Who-to-be Matt Smith were on blistering form in the original production), which means some flaws are more visible, but this is still a gripping, fast-paced 90-minute piece with a brilliant undertone of acerbic humour. Stenham’s searing emotional frankness impresses, but so too does her dramatic skill. The combination produces a portrait of familial dysfunction that would have Freud rubbing his hands in glee.

Bipolar, alcoholic, pill-popping mother Martha has the bleary affection, flashes of viciousness and tantalising empty promises of the serious addict. She’s trapped her sweet, sensitive son Henry in an unhealthy co-dependent relationship, in which the lines of parent/child and relation/lover are increasingly blurred, while maintaining a calculated estrangement with her daughter Mia. The shadow of the absentee father, who traded in this unholy mess for a new family in Hong Kong, looms large.

Mia is forced back into the family fold when a sadistic boarding school hazing ritual, instigated by hilariously awful house captain Izzy, goes badly wrong. That Mia’s part in it was motivated by a misguided form of care is key: like her brother, she balances responsibility with dangerous naïveté, and in both their spheres, the right course of action is never certain. “It’s a different world with different rules,” she says of boarding school, in an attempt to explain why she wanted to numb a younger girl’s pain rather than seek intervention and risk challenging the status quo.

Henry’s care is partly motivated by pride. While his father and sister have chosen to avoid the problem, he has immersed himself in it with the vain hope that he can “fix” his mother. When faced with the involvement of his father and the loss of his mother to professional treatment, he rages against the cowardice of a clinical approach, but also despairs at his own failure – “It can’t have been for nothing.” Stenham astutely lays bare the selfishness and cynicism in even our best actions, and like her characters, we are forced to examine it head on.

That Face is most effective when it balances its wild melodrama with perceptive naturalism and jagged wit, creating an effective British rejoinder to the likes of Tennessee Williams, Eugene O’Neill and Edward Albee. However, it occasionally slips into blunt overstatement, and, though the climax is a superlative visceral explosion, an almost unbearable multi-vehicle pile-up, the emotional core is sometimes lost.

Caroline Wildi gives a solid central performance as Martha, bitterly funny in her stark manipulation and raw in her despair, but she and Rory Fleck-Byrne don’t entirely convince in the disturbing subtleties of their layered relationship. Stephanie Hyam as Mia and Georgina Leonidas as her boarding school partner-in-crime are more effective at capturing the mercurial nature of these troubled souls, who use deceit as a vital currency. Leonidas is bracingly casual in her cruelty and Hyam poignantly young in ill-fitting borrowed maturity.

Tara Robinson, currently the Associate Director to Michael Grandage on his West End season, directs a slick, nuanced production, and Rachel Stone’s clever set is a visual reminder that addiction is a poison, devastating everything it touches. Martha is both a dangerous constant presence and an aching absence, leaving a power vacuum in the family hierarchy and inviting a pitiless natural order.

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Reviewed 15/11/13

By Marianka Swain

12th Nov – 1st Dec 2013
Landor Theatre, London, SW9.

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