AFFLUENCE AND ADDICTION IN A STORMING REVIVAL
After three red-carpet nights up West there’s bracing refreshment in a pub theatre, especially offering the first London revival of a play which in 2007 amazed the theatre world. The first of the “middle-class dramas” promised by Dominic Cooke at the Royal Court saw Polly Stenham, then 19, winning a clutch of awards and an Olivier nomination with a dark, passionate 90-minute portrait of an affluent family in freefall. Having missed it then, I was eager to find out what the fuss was about (one critic called her a new Tennessee Williams). Curiosity was the greater because her most recent play No Quarter (also about a messed-up rich family) struck me as pretentious, vapid and fey.
This one is brilliant. In No Quarter there was a tiresome sense that druggy, posh decadent bohemians are somehow more interesting than other people – an attitude you can only get away with (and then, not for long) if you’re Noel Coward. In this earlier play, though, the teenage Stenham confronted head-on, with real fury as well as absurd humour, the damage and horror of addiction. Sixteen-year-old Mia (Stephany Hyam) is initially seen as a sadistic boarding-school brat helping her ghastly friend Izzy (Georgina Leonidas, a sexy spitfire nightmare) to torture a younger girl. But by the end we weep for what her terrible parents have made her: Hyam, in a terrific professional debut, finely balances shrillness with childlike vulnerability.
Eighteen-year-old Henry (Rory Fleck-Byrne) has been trying to cure his mother of alcoholism and prescription drug abuse since he was thirteen, and is locked into a dreadful co-dependency, unable to escape the dual roles of baby boy and adored boy- acolyte, sleeping on the end of her bed in case she chokes herself in the night, joining in her crazed dressing-up games. “If you left she’d either top herself or get better” says Mia; but the poor good boy is trapped. Their father is in Hong Kong with a new wife and baby, only flying home when the school rings up to expel Mia for feeding her mother’s drugs to a child who ends up in a coma.
As we agonize over “underclass” families and the children of addict mothers and absent fathers, Stenham’s pitiless message is that equally terrible childhoods may lie hidden, cushioned by money and Docklands flats. Tara Robinson directs with headlong, violent verve: the scenes unroll around a bed which can be in a dormitory, either apartment or – with sad chill – can represent the distance between father and daughter in a smart restaurant: a flat white emptiness. Caroline Wildi as Martha the manipulative, unrepentant addict mother is a gaunt and glaring, beguilingly horrible figure: a performance which, staring-eyed in that intimate space, will be hard to forget. A gripping play, with a proper beating heart. I now see what the 2007 fuss was about.
Box Office: 020 7737 7276 | http://www.landortheatre.co.uk to 1 Dec