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That Face at Orange Tree Theatre | Review

A bed is the centrepiece for the action in this play, but there isn’t ‘that’ sort of bedroom activity, which is just as well, given the characters are either schoolgirls or members of the same family. If anything, the set demonstrates how prominently beds feature in daily life, and in various situations, with scenes taking place (amongst other places) in a boarding school dormitory, two flats, and a hospital ward. Perhaps only during a brief scene in a restaurant does the bed look out of place, and even then, some clever stagecraft, together with a strong script, ensures it’s clear what’s going on.

Niamh Cusack (Martha) and Kasper Hilton-Hille (Henry) - credit Johan Perrson.
Niamh Cusack (Martha) and Kasper Hilton-Hille (Henry) – credit Johan Perrson.

Martha (Niamh Cusack) is, as is pointed out repeatedly, both explicitly and implicitly, in need of treatment for her mental health. Cusack’s portrayal of this complex character is a convincing one – she hasn’t completely lost her mental faculties, and despite some bizarre and occasionally shocking behaviour, she retains a streak of mischievousness and deviousness which is a pleasure to watch from the outside in (and therefore, it makes for good theatre) but is palpably frustrating for her son Henry (Kasper Hilton-Hille), who gets increasingly desperate in what even he begins to see as futile attempts to nurse his mother back to relative stability.

The family dynamics are sufficient evidence that there are some things money can’t buy. Hugh (Dominic Mafham), Martha’s ex and the father of Henry and Mia (Ruby Stokes), has a new life elsewhere but is somewhat stereotypical in thinking of himself as the only one who can resolve the miscellaneous problems his first wife and teenage children are facing. Cue the shouty arguments and frayed tempers you’ve seen a thousand times, or more, before, about how the absent father can’t just swoop in after years of benign neglect and expect everyone to comply with his every demand.

In a nutshell, there’s dysfunctionality in a wealthy family, which brings to mind some of Noel Coward’s plays, in that one finds oneself so engrossed in the storyline, laced with some wit, that how much money may or may not be in their bank accounts quickly becomes a very secondary matter in the face of everything else. Then there’s Mia’s friend Izzy (Sarita Gabony), who quickly takes a liking to Henry. The bond, unhealthy and – as Henry puts it himself, “perverse” – between Martha and Henry is such that Martha isn’t exactly best pleased that her son has spent one solitary night away from home.

There’s not much hope left by the end of the play – there’s some stark realism that conventionality could win out, should Mia, still at school, complete her education and embark on a career of her choosing. Not all the narrative strands come together by curtain call, which leaves questions remaining about what happens next. Overall, it’s an uncomfortable but nonetheless riveting production to watch.

4 stars

Review by Chris Omaweng

It’s a different world with different rules

Niamh Cusack leads a revival of Polly Stenham’s astounding 2007 debut.

When Mia is expelled from boarding school, her mother Martha isn’t interested. Martha prefers to hang out with her son Henry. And now her estranged husband Hugh, who’s run off to Hong Kong with his new girlfriend, is charging back threatening to sort things out. What is there to sort out? Everything is fine.

Polly Stenham’s blazing debut play exposes the secret lives of the rich with anarchic humour. That Face won the Evening Standard Charles Wintour Award, the TMA Best New Play Award, and the Critics’ Circle Award. This is its first major London revival.

9 September 2023 – 7 October 2023

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