When Polly Stenham’s That Face transferred from the Royal Court to the West End last year, I was impressed by its precocity but thought it wasn’t quite there. Only Stenham’s age (20) could excuse the play’s obliqueness, its episodic abruptness and its resort to easy shocks (such as incest). It was clearly a play of revenge against her parents, both of whom, we were entitled to assume, had been literally or figuratively absent from the author’s childhood. It’s natural for a new writer to write about her not necessarily very interesting family, but this slice of moneyed Chelsea was so dysfunctional that you could only want to know more.
Tusk Tusk revisits the territory, but with greater accuracy. (Admittedly, it helps seeing it in the Court’s small studio space rather than, as last time, in a proscenium-arched theatre where both intimacy and the young actors’ voices were lost.) The format is tighter. We do not see the parents. Dad is dead and Mum has disappeared, leaving her three children Sloane Alone in a new flat. They wait and wait for her to return, willing it to happen at least for the older boy’s 16th birthday. But she never does.
Stenham is aware that absentee parents are the starting point for many a children’s fantasy. Fourteen-year-old Maggie complains that she is in a “bad Enid Blyton novel”. Her elder brother, Elliott, and younger brother, Finn, daub their chests in warpaint in an echo of either Peter Pan or Lord of the Flies. There are references to Maurice Sendak’s children’s book Where the Wild Things Are, although, as we are in teen London, it is renamed Where the Crack Dealers Are. The children’s names are evocative, too: Elliott from ET, Finn from Huckleberry and Maggie from, I don’t know, The Simpsons. The title is both an adult tongue-click of disapproval and an allusion to Nellie the elephant, who, like the family’s mother, ran away.
At first, being mumless is quite fun. Maggie conveniently finds £200, which keeps them in takeaways and bacon-and-egg crisps. Elliott, determined to get laid before he is 16 (while he believes it is still technically rape), picks up a girl – although Maggie surprises them on his return and dubs them “the love monkey and his oily date”. Finn, who is only seven, turns hunter and catches the mouse that, in the play’s strong opening, has Maggie on the table squealing with faux hysteria.
The trouble is that reality keeps breaking into this fantasy. There is the neighbour who complains about the noise and demands to speak to their parents. (Maggie pretends to be her own Polish nanny.) There is the owner of the 24-hour shop who wants to know why Finn is out barefoot in the early hours. There is Cassie, Elliott’s pick-up, who comes from a council estate and is disgusted at her beau’s cavalier attitude to money (he eats a banknote in front of her). Played by Georgia Groome, she is a truly bracing presence – and a necessary one. Then there is the accident that befalls Finn. Above all, there is the threat of being split up and taken into care.
The acting by the principals is remarkable: they are the best child actors I have seen on stage. Toby Regbo as Elliott is an endearing elder brother, good-looking enough to be “king” of the children, but flaky, too, and arrogant with it. Bel Powley as Maggie operates on the edge between girliness and womanhood, matching her stage brother insult for insult. Finn Bennett fidgets like a seven-year-old, does silly walks like a seven-year-old, and whimpers like a seven-year-old. Perhaps he remembers what it was like; he is eight. Jeremy Herrin’s direction of this trio is exemplary. He’ll be working with animals next.
This is not to say that the adventures of these financially privileged children do not pall, or that the play does not have its longueurs. The secret of what is wrong with Mum and what Maggie said to her the last time they met is not very surprising. When two adult friends of the family force their way into the flat near the end, you realise how much you have missed grown-up voices and how hard it is for juveniles to carry 90 minutes of live theatre. But you do root for the kids, do wish they could escape whatever state fate is their due. You agree with their assessment that families suffer together and suffer each other. Tusk Tusk is the very good first play Stenham did not write with That Face. Almost there this time.
Ends 2 May. Standing places only from: www.royalcourttheatre.com
Andrew Billen is a staff writer for the Times