Aside from a brief run at the Landor pub theatre, this production at the Orange Tree Theatre, directed by Josh Seymour, is the first major London revival of Polly Stenham’s That Face since it premiered at the Royal Court, and subsequently transferred to the West End. Stenham wrote the play aged just nineteen, but this troubling tale of a dysfunctional family, rivals anything Tennessee Williams or Harold Pinter could ever have dreamed of.
A boarding school incident that sees a bout of hazing go wrong, sets in motion a string of catastrophic events. Mia (Ruby Stokes) seems unphased by the harm she’s caused thirteen-year-old Alice, drugging her with Valium and landing her in hospital beaten and bruised.
Her father (Dominic Mafham), long remarried and with a new family, heads back from Hong Kong to smooth things over with the school (in the form of a cash donation) but is surprised to find out just how bad things have got.
Mia’s mother, Martha, has an alcohol and drug problem and is living in squalor. The bed that young Alice was tied and bound to remains on stage throughout and in Eleanor Bull’s design the stage gradually becomes just as messy as the family which dominates That Face.
Martha, played with wild fervour by Niamh Cusack has a son Henry. The relationship between the pair could at best be described as unhealthy. At worst, borderline incestuous. This is primarily led by Martha, when Henry spends the night with Mia’s school friend Izzy (Sarita Gabony) his mother does not react well.
But Henry has already left school to care for Martha full time, and he’s become as reliant on her as she has become on him. He protests that the way she touches him is perverse but continually returns to her arms. Kaspar Hilton-Hille delivers a strong performance as Henry, particularly in the final scenes when the toll taken on his own mental health becomes clear.
Stenham’s script is undeniably a strong, and at times, utterly gripping piece of drama. For a play so grounded in realism, this production does sometimes veer in the opposite direction, taking us out of the nuance that should make it truly shocking, and we seem to be missing the class element, where money and power plays a pivotal role.
Still, this accomplished piece of writing stands the test of time, and a passionate cast ensures the return of That Face is not a disappointment.
That Face is at The Orange Tree Theatre until 7th October 2023.