Truly a middle-class act

An impressive debut, but the move to a larger stage amplifies its flaws

That Face

Duke of York's Theatre, London WC2

Polly Stenham's That Face, which was understandably overpraised when it was first produced Upstairs at the Royal Court last year (its author was only 20), begins with a startling image. A girl is tied to a chair and her face covered by what looks like a black sack. Your first thought is Guantanamo. Then her two tormentors speak, and from their breathy, Sloaney vowels and flip self-confidence you know immediately you are in a girl's public school and this is no more than dorm bullying. The black sack is a beanie hat.

There are still several layers of minor shock to work through. There is the cruelty of the girls, Mia (Hannah Murray) and Izzy (Catherine Steadman), one of whom might, if you are not careful, be your daughter. There is the disparity between the nastiness of what they are doing and the casualness of their chat about it: Mia orders her victim to roll her tongue and then witters that she can't do that herself, and that tongue rolling is meant to be a sign of intelligence or "gayness" or something. Then there is the theatrical surprise that the actors are so young - they seem disturbingly near the characters' age, 14 - and so posh. When was the last time that the theatre bothered with a boarding school for inspiration? Another Country? Before that, The Winslow Boy? And this in a play from the Royal Court. Dominic Cooke, who runs the place, was plainly serious when he said he wanted to address his key, middle-class audiences.

Stenham adroitly adjusts the tone throughout her 90-minute piece. No sooner do we feel relief that all we are witnessing is an initiation rite than the tone darkens and Mia reveals she has given her hostage an overdose of Valium. Her friend Izzy panics but Mia is unfazed: "She's not unconscious, just super-relaxed." The pills were stolen from her mother, Martha, revealed in the next scene to be a depressive drunk, confined not to her bed but to her son Henry's.

We come upon the pair after a wild night of something or other and there is a strong suggestion of incest, although it later turns out that their Oedipal relationship has not gone that far. The most that happens is that she gives her son a love bite to match his new girlfriend's: jealous, she is furious that he is not, as she hoped, gay. Henry, it seems, has dropped out of school to take care of his mad mother. When Mia is suspended from school for the drugs incident, it is left to Henry to chastise her.

And where is Henry and Mia's dad in all this? Hugh (Julian Wadham) is off in Hong Kong "broking", with a new wife and baby. There is a wonderfully embarrassing scene, post the Valium business, in which Hugh takes Mia to lunch to celebrate her reinstatement at school, achieved by a modest bung to the head. Hugh does not even know that his son has left school. Instead he pumps Mia for evidence that will get his ex-wife committed.

What we have here, then, is a Parents Are Crap play, the sort of thing a 19-year-old is entitled to write. Stenham is angry but she controls her anger so that her dialogue sings rather than shouts. By naming the mother "Martha" she lets on, perhaps, that she is an Edward Albee fan, although the character also owes something to Blanche DuBois. Stenham has problems structurally, however. The last scene is meant to turn on its head her conceit that these children have become their parents' parents. Henry, by now dressed in his mother's nightie and pearls, pees himself in front of his father, and regresses. The damaged characters in the play are, you see, the kids. You don't say. The last ten minutes are histrionic at best.

I wish I had seen That Face last year in the smaller space. This is a fringe play that I imagine thrives on an uncomfortable intimacy being forged between the audience and performers. It is done no favours by its transfer to beneath a proscenium arch in the West End. The Duke of York's is a particularly uncomfortable home: a horrible, cramped theatre with terrible sight lines. Worse, the young actors, with the exception of Matt Smith as Henry, do not have the vocal power to remain audible within it. Unforgivably, the thinking man's Joanna Lumley, Lindsay Duncan, otherwise excellent as Martha, drops her voice to match theirs. Never mind. Stenham's status as a most promising playwright is not harmed by this revival. And she is still only 21.

Andrew Billen is a staff writer for the Times

Andrew Billen has worked as a celebrity interviewer for, successively, The Observer, the Evening Standard and, currently The Times. For his columns, he was awarded reviewer of the year in 2006 Press Gazette Magazine Awards.

This article first appeared in the 19 May 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Secret Israel