Reviewed: "No Quarter" and "The Turn of the Screw"

Too posh to push boundaries.

The cast of Stenham's "No Quarter", with Robin (Tom Sturridge) on the right. Photograph: Elliott Franks

No Quarter; The Turn of the Screw
The Royal Court, SW1; The Almeida, N1

In No Quarter, the precocious, publicschool- educated playwright Polly Stenham has taken the advice that a young author should write about what she knows to its limit. After her feted 2007 debut play, That Face, and its superior successor, Tusk Tusk, one might have thought there was little left for her to say about a tiny subset of a generation doubly privileged, or, as Stenham argues, abused, by excesses of parental funding and freedom. Her third play suggests that thought was right. If you have tears to shed, prepare to shed them elsewhere than during this enervating and unsympathetic tale of a home-educated brat called Robin whose greatest accomplishment is to conspire in his demented mother’s suicide.

If you think I am harsh on 24-year-old Robin, a Peter Pan holed up in his mother’s country house, you should see how harshly Stenham treats him – possibly harder than she intends, certainly harder than the play can take. Robin’s character – naive, ill-disciplined, self-indulgent, unworldly – is dissected most accurately by the two sympathetic locals who have broken into his circle: a village girl training to be a policewoman, horrified when he spikes her drink with “drugs”, and the local neighbourhood drug dealer, both keenly aware of the link between working and eating. Even Robin’s best mates, a pair of nightmarish Sloane twins named Scout (brother) and Arlo (sister), are examples of that most feared of plagues, candid friends.

For the play to have worked, Robin would have needed to be a truly charismatic figure, leading us all to a Never Never Land we do not want to leave. The evening begins promisingly. The Jerwood Theatre Upstairs has been transformed by the designer Tom Scutt into a baronial drawing room complete with a stag’s head and a suit of armour. I leaned back and my head brushed tapestry. I was up for spending my evening in here. But as soon as Robin, barefoot in a louche dressing gown, entered, I knew I would want out sooner rather than later.

There are many failings in Stenham’s drawing of Robin. We are told he is a talented composer but the only thing he claims to be composing is a theme tune. Otherwise his talent rests on his facility with a fiddle and a “perfect” rendition of Rachmaninov, rendered offstage. As far as his credentials as a poet savant go, his best lines are about Londoners walking around with their faces “glowing like ghosts because they’re all staring down at screens” – a nice idea, although not, I confess, a smartphone effect I have ever observed.

But these authorial failings are as nothing next to the actor Tom Sturridge’s low-key, energy-draining portrayal of him. “He makes you feel . . . awake,” says Arlo, but he doesn’t, not even when he clambers on to a dangerous roof, not even when he burns down a barn. Sturridge injects so little jeopardy into the play, sexual or otherwise (Taron Egerton as the drug dealer does more) that Robin appears not mad, good and dangerous to know but dull, bad and tiresome. He is so unthreatening that it really does not need his MP brother (played rather well by Patrick Kennedy), to come on at the end and, in a fit of truth-telling, demolish him and his illusions about his parents. It is by no means Stenham’s best play but, to be fair, the director Jeremy Herrin’s production may have made it look even worse.

At the Almeida, The Turn of the Screw is also about child abuse, in this case the sexualisation of pre-adolescent children. It would be much scarier and more contemporary in its preoccupations were the producers not so blatantly out to create another Woman in Black, Susan Hill’s pot-boiler ghost story, which is currently the West End’s second longest-running straight play.

This production certainly managed to produce a few shrieks followed by giggles from the audience as the face of a dead servant suddenly appeared in a window and then again when he rose out of an occupied bed. But as the effects were repeated, the giggles became louder than the screams, as they do when you say “boo” in a darkened room and then do so again and again.

I, however, like Henry James’s tale of a Victorian governess sent to look after two orphans only to suspect they are in diabolical communication with a couple of dead servants. Rebecca Lenkiewicz’s adaptation is closer to his story than many.

She keeps open the possibility that the governess, played with proper frustrated propriety by Anna Madeley, may be imagining the whole thing. The play works perfectly well as a libidinous fantasy of repressed virginhood or infantile sexuality. Unfortunately Peter McKintosh’s design, which places the action in a ruined castle, and Lindsay Posner’s direction, so intent on scaring the pants off us, if not the governess, cancel out many of the subtleties wherein the story’s true creepiness lies.

Andrew Billen is a staff writer on the Times