Children Who Have To Parent
“Do you even know where Waitrose is?.”
“All he cares about is his peace of mind. He’ll have her locked up. On his terms. I can’t allow that to happen. I can’t.”
Once upon a time there was a happy family or at least not as dysfunctional as it is in Polly Stenham’s sixteen year old play That Face. Stenham was just 19 when her play was put on at the Royal Court and with Lindsay Duncan in the lead and Matt Smith as Henry, it transferred to the West End.
It deals with the difficult subject of a child having to care for his alcoholic mother in order to prevent her being sectioned under the Mental Health Act and her children being put into care. Their father is living thousands of miles away and so absorbed with his new family that he hasn’t noticed he stopped paying school fees for his son’s school eighteen months ago.
That Face is not a comfortable play to watch and it starts with a near torture scene in a girls’ boarding school dorm. Dorm leader Izzy (Sarita Gabony) and Mia (Ruby Stokes) are performing an initiation rite on 13 year old Alice (Anya Ellis/Holly French/Nia Griffiths) who is hooded and tied to a bed. Mia has given Alice a large quantity of her mother’s Valium, intended to make things easier for Alice but she loses consciousness and is hospitalised. Whilst I found this chilling, I couldn’t understand the audience member behind me who found it hysterically and screamingly funny.
Mia is Martha (Niamh Cusack)’s 16 year old daughter at boarding school because she doesn’t get on with her mother. She spends the holidays with friends or at her father’s Docklands flat. Mia is almost feral. Her brother Henry (Kasper Hilton-Hille) has dropped out of school and is full time carer to his mother. Martha claims that she is teaching him to draw.
The whole play takes place in different rooms centred on a bed. Sometimes it is Martha’s or Henry’s bed as Martha attempts to stay close to her beloved son. The performance from Niamh Cusack is terrifyingly intense and made more so by the proximity of the audience in the Orange Tree’s square playing area. She is manipulative, drunk and can hyperventilate to order until her son gives her a paper bag to breathe into.
After Henry spends the night with Izzy, there is jealousy from both his mother and his sister. The Oedipal relationship between mother and son does take a humorous turn when Martha says that she understands Henry being gay seeing as he is sensitive and artistic.
It is of course Niamh Cusack’s outstanding performance you will remember but Kasper Hilton-Hille is touching as Henry grapples with the extremes of his mother’s mental health.
For my money, there is too much that is negative about Martha and maybe a more mature playwright would have given her a single redeeming quality. The damage to both children is palpable. A sequel to That Face would be very interesting to see what happens next, after their father Hugh responds to the school’s call about his disturbed daughter and has to face up to his abandoned family.
Written by Polly Stenham
Directed by Josh Seymour
Anya Ellis, Holly French
and Mia Griffiths
Director: Josh Seymour
Designer: Eleanor Bull
Lighting Designer: Jamie Platt
Sound Designer: George Dennis
Movement Director: Ingrid Mackinnon
Running Time: 95 minutes without an interval
Booking to 7th October 2023
Orange Tree Theatre
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge
at the Orange Tree
on 13th September 2023