Review: That Face (Orange Tree Theatre)
Review by Rosie Holmes
Sixteen years after debuting at The Royal Court Theatre, Polly Stenham’s That Face is now showing at Richmond’s intimate Orange Tree Theatre. Written when Stenham was only nineteen, the piece brims not only with teenage vulnerability, confusion and angst, but with the power of a more experienced playwright. Having not been produced for some time, it was interesting to see whether this story of mental health and dysfunctional familial relationships would still wield the same power in a contemporary theatrical landscape.
That Face begins with fifteen-year-old Mia, who is sent home from her boarding school after an initiation ceremony gone wrong. She returns to her mother and brother, whose relationship much of the play centres around. It is a relationship of co-dependence as eighteen-year-old Henry drops out of school to become his mentally unwell, alcoholic mother’s carer. Their connection is warped and overly-close, becoming more and more uncomfortable to watch, whilst he describes the way his mother touches him as “perverse” he returns the touch not only to satisfy her but, it becomes clear, for his own co-dependent needs too.
The piece begins as powerfully and as urgently as it continues to be. This is not a slow burn of a play by any means, but an uncomfortable and troubling watch from the very start. In its opening scenes we see teenage Mia, unsettlingly unbothered by the fact she has drugged a younger student, followed by a demonstration of the dysfunctional relationship between her mother and brother, though perhaps providing an explanation for her oddly cold behaviour. The show is uncomfortable throughout, and for the most part this provides powerful theatre, although in some ways, does also become one of its shortcomings. Whilst the shock factor is be powerful in showing the realities of parentification (the reversal of roles between parent and child) and affects of poor mental health in families, at others it feels a little too graphic. This being the case, there is little room for nuance – at times it almost feels there is nothing left to the imagination and too much is explained in graphic detail rather than developing the characters beyond the here and now.
That being said, the script is strong, highlighting Polly Stenham’s capabilities as a playwright. Through her writing she creates complex characters that are simultaneously frustrating, yet sympathetic. Unrelenting in its fast pace, Stenham’s script quickly builds a world in which we are fully immersed. Whilst her characters are both damaged and damaging, her script is littered with witticisms that allow the audience brief moments of laughter amongst the painful and emotive family chaos that fills most of the show. However, though the main themes of the piece are clearly the effects of dysfunctional family relationships, it does feel there are other interesting themes that could have been expanded upon. It is clear that the family are wealthy, especially Mia and Henry’s Dad, who appears only to save the day with financial help. This privilege should be acknowledged as well as the ensuing power imbalance that money causes, particularly when Martha is left without any, leaving the power of her mental health treatment in her ex-husband’s hands.
Niamh Cusack provides a powerhouse performance as Martha, a troubled, mentally unwell mother, whose suffering worsened after her ex-husband’s relocation to Singapore with his new family. Cusack throws all her energy into the performance, carefully toeing the line between portraying a woman losing herself to mental illness and addiction without becoming a caricature. Her son is played by Kasper Hilton-Hille – rather remarkably, That Face, is his professional stage debut. Given his performance, this is quite the feat, he creates a character that demonstrates an emotional mix of vulnerability, frustration and desperation, and gives an unforgettable performance in a highly charged final scene. Alongside him, Ruby Stokes, again in her stage debut, plays his sister, Mia. Outwardly, a sullen, rebellious teenager, who allows us glimpses of vulnerability below her hardened exterior.
The set contains only a lone bed. Interestingly, not the first time I have seen a show at The Orange Tree Theatre that’s set is comprised of only a bed. The setting allows us to see our characters’ most intimate moments, and the theatre’s small, in the round space only adds to this feeling if intimacy. Direction by Josh Seymour is, much like the script, fast-paced. Even in the small stage space, the cast are rarely still. Scene changes happen amongst a cacophony of light, movement, and sound, which act to disconcert the audience and create further unease. Whilst this is an interesting approach, it did feel that this was unnecessary. The action itself is unsettling, to further dramatize with effects, almost takes us out of the real-life world we have so intimately been drawn into, and makes us lose our sense of place and connection.
Does this play still stand up in a contemporary society with changing conversations and awareness surrounding mental health? In a word, yes. Its script is still frightfully relevant and the cast here do a wonderful job of delivering its equally brilliant script. My only wish would be that for some of its themes to be drawn out a little further such as power and wealth. Yet, this is still a show filled to the brim with emotion and power. Stenham’s debut piece remains just as impressive as it was when it debuted 15 years ago.
That Face plays at Orange Tree Theatre until 7th October 2023, tickets are available here - THAT FACE | What's On | Orange Tree Theatre
Photos by Johan Perrson