That Face

Tue 20th – Sat 24th November 2012

reviews

Emily Handley

at 23:38 on 20th Nov 2012

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Meet Martha, who lives in an “upside-down world”. We first see her in bed as she calls for Henry, her “Russian soldier”, who she kisses and caresses while helping herself to a bottle of pills. We are then introduced to Mia as she taunts a young girl who is blindfolded and slumped in a chair, with chilling connotations of the hazing rituals practised by fraternity groups at American universities. The girls keep up a constant stream of chatter with their hostage, alternating between swearing at her and referring to her as “Alice, sweetie, darling!” while her head lolls in the chair. Martha is a middle-aged woman, and Henry and Mia and her children.

Polly Stenham’s play returns to Cambridge for the second time with this powerful production, featuring a small cast of extremely skilful actors. Written when Stenham was 19, it is a searing portrait of a dysfunctional family who are forced to reunite to confront their problems. Fifteen-year-old Mia (Lara Ferris) is sent home from boarding school following her involvement in a brutal initiation ceremony that has seen its victim hospitalised. Her mother Martha, who is wracked with grief over the prospect of going to rehab to beat her addiction to prescription drugs, refuses to let her into the house. Martha’s estranged husband Hugh is thousands of miles away, living with his second family in Hong Kong while working as a broker. And so it is up to Henry to look after his sister and to smooth over the fraught situation between his parents while being locked in a stifling cycle of co-dependency with his mother.

The many boundaries that are explored in this play are blurred to the point where the characters no longer recognise whether they exist anymore. Henry and Martha’s quasi-erotic relationship is overlaid with Henry’s distress that his mother refuses to get help for her alcohol and drug addiction. Whenever she goes back on her promises, Martha implores her son that “this is the last time” she will do so. James Bloor and Genevieve Gaunt are outstanding as they communicate their characters’ feelings of helplessness with incredible clarity, revealing the devastating meaningless of the phrase as it is batted back and forth between them.

Stenham’s dark humour and the actors’ utter accomplishment at embodying the personas of their troubled characters made the production very uncomfortable to watch. The tiny Corpus Playrooms made the drama even more immediate and involving, establishing a pervading sense of voyeurism at witnessing the family’s descent into addiction and estrangement. While the play is as much about Martha’s struggle to surface from her addictions and her incestuous love for her son, it is also about the destruction of a family as they grow ever more distant/ Martha’s turns between lasciviousness and pathetic neediness show that she and her husband are as much in need of help as their children.

It is to Quentin Beroud’s credit that he moulds Hugh into a fully-fleshed and complex character, despite his infrequent appearances on stage. In one memorable scene, he takes his daughter out for dinner after arriving back from Hong Kong to deal with the fallout from Mia’s role in the bullying at her school. The stilted conversation between them soon materialises into something beyond an awkward exchange between a teenage girl and her father when she berates him for never being there for her. Both of them skirt around the ever- present issues of addiction and bullying, which become the elephant in the room. As Mia, Ferris shows consummate skill at switching between unsettling passivity and the calculating manipulation that she displays here in front of her father. Beroud expertly conveys Hugh’s difficulty in aligning his roles as high-flying broker and father. He slips into well-practised business patter when talking to his daughter, addressing her as if placating a particularly pesky client.

The ninety minutes of this theatrical tour de force under Maria Pawlikowska’s direction were exhilarating and draining, and her decision to root the piece in dialogue and characters certainly paid off. The cast worked exceptionally well together, conveying the distressing reality of being a part of a group of people who are only a family in the sense that they all live within the same four walls. The absence of music and major props merely reinforced the play’s power as an astonishingly realistic snapshot into the steadily unravelling lives of the members of a well-to-do, middle-class family.

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Nya Joseph-Mitchell

at 02:10 on 21st Nov 2012

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The relatively sparse set of ‘That Face’ initially drew the relaxed audience into what appeared to be a teenage girl’s bedroom in a normal domestic scene. A Twilight poster headed the simple bed, out from the covers of which a large teddy was tentatively poking its head. When the lights went down, however, the innocuous illusion was shattered. The entrance of Mia (Lara Ferris) and Izzy (Nisha Emich) to loud rock music immediately commanded the attention of the audience, and, as they dragged the previously concealed sleeping girl from her bed and tied her to a chair, the tension was palpable. It was a bold start to what was overall a very strong production that confronts the hush-hush of mental health problems and various forms abuse in middle class society.

Despite the strong start, however, the first scene took a while to warm up, with the exchange between Ferris and Emich feeling either under- or over- rehearsed; the dialogue didn’t seem to flow smoothly enough, and at times, it felt as though we weren’t watching a conversation unfolding, as one aims for in realistic drama, but that lines were merely being said in a particular order with little done to convince us of the actors’ conviction. As the play progressed Emich came into her own well, the pathological side to her character subtly revealed in the blasé way that she processed the events surrounding the hospitalisation of Alice, a silent part that was excellently performed by Victoria Fell. I would have liked to see Ferris relax a little more and tune into the events around her, although for a debut performance on the Cambridge stage it was more than satisfactory.

The staging was well done, and in spite of the blocking being somewhat awkward, with lines of sight at times obscured, it was clear the team had made the best of the Corpus stage. There were moments where scene changes could have been completed more efficiently, but what was let down in that department was made up for by directive choices by Maria Pawlikowska and Johannes Ruckstuhl’s lighting. Scenes such as the restaurant scene between Hugh (Quentin Beroud) and his daughter, Mia, occurred downstage under a spotlight, with the bedroom set and all its paraphernalia scattered on the floor being just visible in the background. This lent the scene a subtle layer of extra tension and seemed psychologically well-placed, since the problem at home is, at this point, at the forefront of both the characters’ minds.

Two performances deserve a particularly special mention: those of James Bloor (Henry) and Genevieve Gaunt (Martha/Mummy). As individuals they accomplished incredible performances; together, they were phenomenal. Their first scene, which began with a good few minute’s silence, had the potential to be either awkward or boring, but Gaunt’s hangover, drug-fuelled shakes and silent, increasingly dawning comprehension of the events of the night before were superb. The oedipal-laced relationship between mother and son could not have been more convincing; witnessing the tenderness with which she removed Bloor’s socks and kissed the bare soles of his feet was incredibly uncomfortable. Gaunt’s treatment of mental health and addiction seemed thoroughly researched, as did the dynamic of Henry’s interdependency on (and frustration with) his mother as a young carer whom it is implied is the victim of sexual abuse.

Although it is overwhelmingly a tragedy, the play was warminly comic in moments, with costume choices adding to the hilarity (and pathos) of various situations; when Henry faces his father, standing in his mother’s pink nightie adorned with her jewellery, the audience’s enjoyment is evident. So, too, however, does it jar with the reality of the situation. At the close of the play, Martha is dressed in a long midnight blue velvet concert dress with a sparkling brooch and pearls as she curls into a ball and refuses to answer her extremely distressed son’s demands as to whether or not she has eaten a tin of cat food. The incongruity is harrowing. When everyone but Henry and Mia have exited and Mia closes the play with supposed words of comfort to her brother that ‘It’s okay,’ this, too, jars with the audience, who has just witnessed a young man of seventeen wet himself in inconsolable distress. This is a distressing play for all the right reasons, and it contains performances that will have you both squirming as it cuts to the core of middle class prejudice and miscomprehension of issues surrounding mental health, and laughing with genuine mirth at the deftly delivered, dead-pan comic lines of all the actors involved.

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