Imagine that Hamlet’s bedroom scene lasted a tense hour and a half, or that someone held up a distorting mirror to Coward’s The Vortex and instead of a wayward etiolated son it was the mother who was dissolute and drug dependent.

When Polly Stenham’s That Face premiered at the Royal Court in 2007 it was hailed an an outstanding début for a 19-year old playwright. Now shorn of its starry casting (Matt Smith, Lindsay Duncan) and novelty value, it’s still remarkable and there’s nothing in its scripting to identify the youth of the writer.

Stenham has a rare and gifted ability to write about the upper middle class from life and with conviction – she could give Julian Fellowes lessons on Downton – and to present three-dimensional independently-minded thinking people whose individual intelligence causes the clashes which make the drama. She also likes to shock: the opening bondage-and-torture initiation ceremony in the dormitory of a girls’ boarding school – she went to Wycombe Abbey – feels authentically edgy. It invites comparison with the comedies more usually associated with this setting: I’m fairly sure that whatever Daisy is pulling off in Daisy Pulls It Off, isn’t a gimp mask. It is in this dorm.

Martha, the artistically-temperamental mother at the centre of the piece is glass-fragile and beautifully realised by Caroline Wildi. She’s also a vampire, sucking the essential life from her handsome and oedipal-frustratingly heterosexual son, with the same brittle ferocity with which she rejects her boundary-testing daughter Mia played with fine observation, but one too many gesturing rearrangements of her piled hair-do, by Stephanie Hyam. Rory Fleck Byrne is both better as the son Henry (you relish his engagements with Wildi’s instabilities) and given more dramatic opportunities, since his character is written with considerably more forgiveness and affection than the others.

The focus is enabled by Rachel Stone’s spectacularly effective set, a metaphorically solid and supportive bed frame on and in which most of the action is concentrated, under ten shaded lamps, and which becomes increasingly dishevelled as the characters begin to disintegrate in front of us.

The problem is in the plotting: there’s nothing new in stating that bad parenting may lead to confused teenagers but this feels like a brilliant first act in which layered and complicated characters are exposed and explored and could go somewhere but neither Mia’s sadomasochistic tendency nor Henry’s acts of sexual independence get further exposition.

Instead of following their journey to a more painful delayed conclusion, Stenham stages an intervention by Martha’s wealthy estranged husband summoned from Hong Kong. At this point contemporary realism is jettisoned, as both the writing and Tony Donnelly’s performance belong to some pre-Howard’s Way eighties soap opera. The ending feels both predictable and unsatisfying.

Date reviewed: Friday 15th November 2013

Image © Darren Bell

One Stop ArtsOriginally published on One Stop Arts.