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That Face

by on 27 January 2019

Theatre with Realism and Bite

That Face

by Polly Stenham

Questors Theatre Company at The Studio, Ealing until 2nd February

Review by Ian Nethersell

I have been lucky enough to attend and work in many performance spaces throughout London and the Home Counties, ranging from ornate Victorian theatres to community halls. Of all these spaces The Studio at Questors Theatre is possibly my favourite. A slightly asymmetric black box that can be configured and used in a myriad of ways, limited only by imagination – and imagination and imagery were not missing from this production. It was the fully in-the-round configuration to which I entered to watch Questors Theatre’s first performance of That Face, directed by John Davey.

The play, written by Polly Stenham whilst relatively young (still in her teens) was first produced in 2007 at The Royal Court during her involvement with The Royal Court’s Young Writers’ Programme, and explores the interactions of a dysfunctional family centred around a mother who has mental health issues and a dependency to alcohol.

The set and settings by Ray Dunning were simple, striking a good balance of what was necessary to portray location and what was needed to facilitate the scene. I particularly liked the cracks painted onto the floor, echoing the fractured internal and external relationships of the characters, demonstrating great symbolism and attention to detail.
The eight scene changes were handled smoothly and confidently by Cathy Swift and her team. Sound design by Olly Potter worked well, the piece not being populated by copious sound effects. The thrash metal music for the scene changes added to the experience by creating a comfortable yet uncomfortable feeling which ironically portrayed a stability and consistency devoid from the life of the characters. Lighting design by Andrew Quick and Robert Walker was basic, but do not confuse this with simple, it achieved just the right balance of levels and coverage without complication which meant it never once stood out above the piece. Both lighting and sound were aptly operated by Tracey Wickens, who managed to juggle both tasks without drawing attention.

thatface7

Could the tech have been used differently? Of course, if one wanted to create a different kind of production but for this telling there was a feeling of congruence which I felt hit the spot.

thatface6In the opening scene we witness the hazing of a student, Alice, (Maria Gebhardt) in a girl’s boarding school. Not only disturbing because of the content but mostly for the callous, calculating narcissistic, bordering on psychopathic character of Izzy, (Chloë Bourke). Although initially the character of Mia, (Fionna Gough) seems to be submissive towards a bullying authority figure we soon see that this young girl is confident and more than capable of handling problems and people, a skill no doubt learned from years of living in her environment. She is quite prepared to do what is needed to be done.

thatface2Scene Two introduces us to Martha (Wendy Gebhardt) the mother, who is in bed whilst her son, Henry, (Calvin Crawley) sleeps on top of the covers. She is recovering from the night before and with Henry upset, Martha speaks the hollow promise of the drunk, “Never again!”. When Henry threatens to leave she puts on an over-egged hypertension panic attack which shows to what degree of manipulation she is prepared to go, but this doesn’t wash with Mia who challenges Martha. It also sets clearly the reversal of role and identity, with the mother clearly in the child and victim position whilst the daughter inhabits the adult, whereas Henry is clearly adaptive to the mother. This scene also gives us a glimpse of an unhealthy relationship between mother and son which deepens and becomes more of their norm as the play progresses.

Scene Three is in the hospital where Alice is lying, hooked up to a drip after being fed a large quantity of Valium by Mia during the hazing and whilst it initially seemed that she had done it, ’just because’, it may also have been because Mia is a caring character and was trying to protect Alice from the spiteful Izzy who doesn’t care for anything except seducing Henry. After they have left the room Alice begins to cry which is loaded with emotion and content, clearly demonstrating that a good actor does not need lots of lines to act to a very high standard.

thatface1In Scene Four we witness the spiteful nature of Martha after she has cut up her son’s clothes for not coming home to her, and when she sees the marks of love-making on him she lashes out with a jealousy suggesting a different level of relationship. This is the first time we get an inkling that the underlying issue for Martha is a mental health disorder, also cemented by Henry’s words. “Martha, you live in an upside-down world”. Soon he relinquishes and we see the co-dependency in the relationship, both need each other and each other’s behaviour. This gets reinforced in the next scene when he verbally attacks Izzy who leaves in tears after her delusions to power are smashed when she sets herself against the mother for Henry’s affections.

thatface9Meanwhile the father Hugh (Mike Hadjipateras) has been called by Mia’s school after her expulsion and is on his way from Hong Kong, where he now lives with his second family. During the restaurant scene with Mia we witness his inability to emotionally connect with his first family and he threatens to have Martha sectioned.

thatface4In the final scene Martha is dressed to go out for dinner with Hugh. Henry is dressed in Martha’s nightgown and wearing make-up in what has become a complete inhabiting of the mother. Hugh and Mia walk into this and, as the conflict rises to fever pitc, Martha eventually concedes and goes with Hugh to voluntarily enter The Maudsley. After they leave we completely are left with Mia and Henry who is distraught, his reason for living and identity now gone and with the final words of the play spoken by Mia, “It will be alright. Everything will be alright” we become aware that the play was not about Martha’s issues and health, but about Henry’s.

Will history repeat itself in the relationship between sister and brother or will it be ‘alright’? Well, that would be another play and one I would rush to buy tickets for. I recommend you do for this production of a well written play with high production values by a respected theatre company if you like your theatre with realism and bite that challenges and makes you think.

It may seem this review is mostly a recounting of the story but it is more a reflection on the quality of the performances. Such was the standard of the acting and inhabiting of the roles that I fully lost contact with any actors and only experienced the complexity and depth of the characters and their world in a fully empathetic theatrical experience. John Davey has managed to pull together a superb cast to take the audience on a journey that could have been shallow and wordy but instead is taut and honest in its portrayal without glorifying or resorting to cheap gratuity. That Face is a wonderful production and well worth the 1¾ hours without interval.

Ian Nethersell
January 2019

Photography by Peter Collins

From → Drama, Reviews

3 Comments
  1. Olly POTTER permalink

    Hi There,

    I’m Olly Potter the sound designer for this production. I really would like to use aspects of your review for my university assignment (as a technical theatre student) however, I’m referred to as Olly Porter not Olly Potter which is actually my last name. Is there anyway this could be changed?

    All the best,
    Olly POTTER

    • Hello Olly. I am very sorry that our reviewer, Ian made a mistake with your name. I know how frustrating that can be. We have now corrected it in the on-line review. Hope all goes really well with your assignment and well done for your part in That Face. Kind regards Keith Wait for Mark Aspen Reviews . keith@stagecompany.co.uk

      • Olly POTTER permalink

        No need to apologies Mark.

        Thank you both.

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