Corpus Playroom, 7pm, until Sat 24 Nov
That Face by Polly Stenham is a darkly funny tragicomedy that won the 2007 TMA Award for Best Play. It follows the disintegration of an upper-middle class family, sparked by Mia’s suspension from boarding school, which reveals her completely dysfunctional home life and her mother Martha’s descent into addiction and mental illness.
Maria Pawlikowska’s production emphasises the power games played by each member of the family, as they must decide what they want to salvage from their deteriorating relationships. The chilling and worryingly funny opening vignette of boarding school torture is re-echoed Martha’s variously bullying and affectionate techniques to stop her son, Henry, from leaving her. This production is unsettling on many levels, starting with Martha’s quasi-incestuous relationship with her son, a symptom of her desire for complete possession of him. The comedy also unsettles: at points it was as if the audience did not know quite whether they should laugh but, when they did, it really worked, such as Martha’s conversation with a talking clock and Henry’s accidental transvestism when his absent father arrived to sort matters out. The comedy always has a tragic edge, finding madness bubbling beneath the surface of this seemingly cosy world.
The simple staging, a bed the focal point throughout, allowed the actors space to develop emotional depth. Often the positioning of the actors was used to great effect to signify the shifting power or emotional dynamic. Unfortunately, the rather lengthy scene changes sometimes detracted from the play, and the pacing of some scenes seemed a little slow. Yet the strengths of the production generally compensated for this.
Genevieve Gaunt adeptly captured the complexity of Martha, combining disturbingly sensuality with irrational mood changes, the pathos of delusion with a vindictive lucidity. James Bloor is also outstanding as Henry, who grows from useless eighteen-year-old artist to take on a tragic stature, desperately trying to keep the family together while the others seek the easy way out. Lara Ferris captures Mia’s naivety well, although she could have had more emotional depth in the last scene.
This was, perhaps, part of a more general problem that the play raises: it is so unsettling that the audience is in danger of being left bereft of anyone to sympathise with. Each of the characters is discredited, their motives revealed to be entirely selfish, demolishing any kind of moral high ground. The power games reach their climax in the taught final scene, each character bidding for the possession of another, except this possession is revealed to be not power but dependency.
This is a subtle and chilling production, which captures dangerously shifting emotional dynamics, power play and jokes that will make it hurt to laugh.