Written for CultureWars.org.uk
Now that the dust has had a chance to settle after the whirlwind of excitement generated by 20-year-old Polly Stenham’s Royal Court debut the play has finally transferred to the West End. It is one of those occasions that critics dread: will the play that they so lavishly praised the first time round be revealed as a hollow shell, making them look like idiots?
The transfer of an intimate, 80-seat, in-the-round show to the 650-odd seat pros. arch space certainly has the potential to crucify a show, or at least to expose weaknesses in pieces that depend on the intimacy of the venue for their effect. However, That Face always felt like it was written for end-on viewing. There is something about the unwavering scrutiny of the characters – as if they were insects pinned on microscope slides - coupled with the continual changes of location, that makes it seem totally right for the West End. As I remarked at the time, it felt like an old-fashioned play (at least, as old-fashioned as Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf) given unwontedly groovy staging.
As it turns out, when transferred to a proper old-fashioned stage, one begins to see the modernities of the play. The short scenes become more noticeable, the tele-realist dialogue initially sounds odd echoing off the bare walls of Mike Britton’s white box minimalist set, as the actors raised their voices trying to reach the back row of the upper circle.
For all that, the play has retained its power to engage and surprise. Lindsay Duncan's role as the alcoholic mother being cared for by her son, for whom she nurses near-explicit incestuous desires, remains one of the most luminous roles written for an actress in recent years and her note-perfect performance from the Court remains blisteringly powerful here. Matt Smith as Henry has, if anything, managed to improve his performance as her son, who is gradually being ripped apart by the effort of trying to keep his mum together. Hannah Murray, taking over from Felicity Jones as his sister, is perhaps more plausibly teenage than her predecessor, but at the same time displays less of the necessary poshness; the lack of theatre credits on her CV is also observable in her stage presence, which suffers from a slightly over-emphatic delivery and limited emotional range. Catherine Steadman as her sadistic boarding school head of dorm, Izzy, remains distractingly gorgeous, and while she is never quite convincingly vile enough, her performance does a subtle job of hinting at the brittle but provocative young woman trapped behind a deliberately callous exterior.
While the play remains hugely watchable and engaging, the final denouement now feels as if the play is stopping too soon. As an ending for a studio play, screaming hysterics worked very well, and the proximity ensured blistering intensity. Now removed from their immediate vicinity, vivid emotional fireworks aren't quite enough. In spite of the ending’s nods to both Who’s Afraid… and Look Back in Anger, it doesn’t achieve quite the same burnt out resolution of either. As if not all passion is really spent at all The play remains cruel, witty and astute, but exposure in a larger space leaves it needing more insight and wisdom alongside the horribly convincing pain.