Review – That Face at the Duke of York’s Theatre

Sunday 18 May 2008

The Whingers are feeling a tad existential today.

Not that they are quite sure what that means. But they are seeing their sad little world as even more devoid of reason and order than usual. Absurd, indeed.

Their relationship with the gods of West End theatre (the critics, producers, artistic directors and more recently Natasha Tripney’s Mother) has always been a bit iffy.

But today they acknowledge that – in the absence of a transcendent force – the Whingers are – as individuals – ultimately responsible for making sense of things.

And hence they are beginning to question – if not their very being – then at least their reason for being.

And it hurts.

Andrew and Phil have often questioned each others’ existence, possibly because they’re generally viewing each other through a haze of grape juice. But the cause of this current introspection was Polly Stenham’s multi award-winning debut play That Face.

‘**** INTO THE WEST END, RAW POWER INTACT. A blazing, no-holds barred production… Fresh, passionate and blackly comic – exhilarating… Lindsay Duncan’s superb performance…Matt Smith is outstanding.’ – Charles Spencer, Daily Telegraph

‘**** POLLY STENHAM IS A MODERN SUCCESSOR TO TENNESSEE WILLIAMS OR EDWARD ALBEE. Intensely moving, skilfully crafted piece… Matt Smith delivers an extraordinary performance.’ – Daily Express

‘**** SPELLBINDING. Matt Smith’s astonishing coup de theatre… Jeremy Herrin’s powerful, expressionistic production.’ – Nicholas de Jongh, Evening Standard

‘**** EMOTIONAL POWER IN THE MOTHER OF ALL DEBUTS. Highly accomplished performances from Hannah Murray and Julian Wadham.’ – Michael Billington, Guardian

‘**** Matt Smith gives a performance to match the excellent Lindsay Duncan.’ – Benedict Nightingale, Times

‘**** Polly Stenham’s writing is remarkable for its depth of feeling combined with a tart sense of humour.’ – Time Out

Perhaps they shouldn’t have watched it stone-cold sober; perhaps their critical faculties aren’t as finely honed as their inflated opinions believed. But both emerged from The Duke of York’s Theatre scratching their heads and worrying that they’d missed something. To make matters worse the third person in their party Roy (making his own debut as part of the Whingers’ entourage) seemed very impressed with the whole thing.

The Whingers just didn’t get what all the fuss has been about.

True, Stenham paints a shocking portrait of an dysfunctional family where children are forced act like parents and parents behave selfishly but sadly the Whingers couldn’t quite suspend their disbelief sufficiently to be shocked.

Lindsay Duncan’s alcoholic mother Martha sometimes resembles Edina in Absolutely Fabulous as her strange Oedipal relationship with her son Matt Smith (excellent) shifts power from unhealthily doting parent to pathetic neediness.

Now this was something Phil could relate to. Many’s the time Phil would have taken care of an alcoholically impaired Andrew by carrying him home from a bar if only he had the strength to pick him up.

The big deal is: that Stenham wrote That Face at the tender age of 19.

Now perhaps the Whingers are just jealous. After all, Phil was still trying to wean himself off Lois Lane comics at that age and Andrew was still struggling to handle joined up writing.

But – having been severely taken to task over our insensitive response to Tinderbox at the Bush – we think we are beginning to see where we have been going wrong with the whole “new writing” thing.

The clue is here in Andrew Haydon’s review on CultureWars:

This is a fascinating debut, and while not a perfect play, it feels more like it is striving for greatness than many. I could be wrong, but on the evidence presented here, Polly Stenham may well turn out to be one of the most exciting old-school playwrights that the Royal Court has produced in decades.

You see, the really important thing about new writing is not the play itself, but the promise of future, better plays.

In which case, please wake us up when new writers have become established writers.

Still, there were things to enjoy: the on-stage urination made a refreshing change from on-stage food consumption and on-stage vomiting which are now so de rigeur.

And then there is the impressive all-in acting from Matt Smith and a rather elegant set and lighting design from Mike Britton and Natasha Chivers.

Natasha Tripney’s Interval Drinks blog accurately likens the messy bed that dominates the stage to a Tracey Emin installation. It put Phil in mind of reports (from the few unlucky enough to have seen it) of Andrew’s own scrofulous bed chamber (with the emphasis firmly placed on the word chamber) or perhaps a Balmoral boudoir after devout Catholic Cherie Blair’s scramble to find her contraceptive “equipment” (sic).

Still, when all is said and done, we just didn’t get it.

But worst of all, Natasha Tripney’s Mother (whose judgement the Whingers are already in awe of, despite not having actually met her) liked it.

Perhaps its time for the Whingers to retire to the bar and stay there, stop their whining and stick to wine-ing.


  • Row L of the Duke of York’s stalls rivals The Old Vic for poor sight-lines. Things were OK until the seats in front of the Whingers were occupied at the last minute. The rake in the stalls isn’t enough to cope with sitting behind a top knot.
  • The programme features an article “Court Cases” by Al Senter about new writers at the Royal Court where That Face originated. It refers rather coyly to Mark Ravenhill’s play as Shopping and F***ing but later in Sonia Friedman Productions’ biog there is no such timidity removing the asterisks to reveal it’s full moniker Shopping and Fucking.
  • Apparently, That Face was hailed as The Vortex for the iPod generation. Phil would like it to be noted that he received an iPod for his birthday last year and hence considers himself to be part of the iPod generation. It is not his fault that it didn’t come with a cable and so is still in its box.
  • Our companion Roy flies light aircraft and tells us that on long flights it is necessary to pee into a bottle which has given the Whingers inspiration for making it through any future 90mins+ plays without intervals.

12 Responses to “Review – That Face at the Duke of York’s Theatre”

  1. Next time I hear a ripple run round the auditorium, I shall check for you chaps.

  2. TimW Says:

    I have to admit to being rather non-plussed about this play’s progress into the West End.
    I seem to remember enjoying it at the Royal Court Upstairs but I certainly didn’t think it exceptional. It felt like many play in that theatre – an intimate portrait of a dysfunctional family – well written but so…

  3. Ed Avis Says:

    Please fix the Cherie Blair link.

  4. Natasha Says:

    My mum did enjoy this yes, but I had only recently taken her to see The Year Of Magical Thinking, so this earned points purely for having actual things happening in it.

    She was quite taken with Matt Smith’s ability to be genuinely tragic in a night dress though.

  5. tom Says:

    I really liked this… I liked the way it started out like decent young writing, and then grew and grew. It felt really well structured, and built to an ending that was kinda predictable, but pretty powerful. And it was the perfect length. And the ambiguity in the mother son relationship. Actually, I really liked the ending, the nod towards Streetcar but twisting it a little bit, the way it gave the Martha some sympathy and respect…. Hannah Murray wasn’t very good though, admittedly. But the lighting and sound designs were awesome, especially the Kings of Leon bit. I’ll stop gushing.

  6. webcowgirl Says:

    I have been afraid to see this play because it sounds a little too sincere and, well, I kept thinking (when I read the plot) that it was the Vortex, only I’d forgotten who’d written it in the meantime.

    Frankly, I am not up for praising something for indicating that it shows future promise (and got roundly bitched out for criticizing Ballet Black for just not being up to snuff). Screw that crap! As far as I’m concerned, the performers and director have made a pact with you, the audience member, when you buy that seat for a show, and that pact is to give you a good evening – to entertain you. It’s not to show that at some time in the future they might produce something worthwhile -t hat’s what fringe theater (etc.) is for.

    Anyway, thanks for the review, I’m following my instincts (and your good judgment) and taking a miss on this.

  7. Ken Says:

    I don’t really recommend this after a few drinks either. 90 mins+ without an interval and on-stage urination is a little uncomfortable.

    I am surprised that Ms Stenham didn’t call Martha’s children Brick and Blanche while she was at it.

  8. Tim Robinson Says:

    Whingers are right: this was melodrama, pure and simple, and emotional engagement impossible. Maybe she will write a good play one day, but then if you garner all this praise for something so derivative and immature why both to improve?

  9. Cathy Hough Says:

    I saw this play on the 2nd of May before I had read any reviews. I did not enjoy it and I do not think that the rest of the audience did. The audience response was polite clapping not enthusiastic applause. Compared to the excellent Random it was a great disappointment. Nowhere near good enough for the West End. I was amazed by the reviews. What is going on?
    Too much Eastenders watching maybe?

  10. malvernhillspotassium Says:

    2nd May was only the second night of previews so they were probably still tweaking it? I saw it 7th June and there was enthusiastic applause! Also people near me crying and much animated conversation afterwards. I really enjoyed this play and for me it was a memorable evening of theatre. It’s only on until 5 July and I’d say don’t miss it!

  11. AJK Says:

    My sense of foreboding was increased not only because the Duke of York’s doesn’t sell sandwiches and I was starving but I seem to remember that I saw Copenhagen somewhere around here, perhaps even here, several years ago and that play was how shall we say, absolute bollocks.

    But so it didn’t prove, exactly. The whingers mentioned jealousy which I am not ruling out as a motivating factor for my view but I found this play much more moving than whatever I was actually seeing on stage. The writing, 72% of which I 100% guarantee you was written late at night in an exhilarating moment of being, was powerful and sometimes it is ok to be in the presence of such power with no particularly appropriate vehicle. If Polly does not yet have the appropriate discipline or has not yet devised the right structure for her imagination, she can hardly be blamed right now.

    So let’s see we are dropped in at some OTT boarding school bullying, introduced to a frankly absurd mother/son relationship, presented with Youth’s lack of remorse, confused by what effects exactly an absent father has had on his family (oh wait, the mother/son relationship and by the way you can get a very decent steak in Hong Kong), and moved by the son’s final redemptive outburst.

    But it doesn’t really matter. All this detail acts as an objective correlative; our impression is of the stuff of life and the play is enhanced by performances infused with the same vibrant energy of youth as the writing. Dammit.

    The whingers wanted a more finished product and that’s fair enough; but this was useful and enlightening as a distillation of the imagination and I think that’s fair enough from a nite out also. Polly Stenham, meanwhile, will either mature into a very great writer or, in 10 years time when she is an accountant, will look back on this prodigous effort, written when she used to read books, with affection and vague regret.

  12. Sue Campbell Says:

    I currently live in the Highlands of Scotland but have family down South.Whilst visiting the Home Counties in June I took the opportunity to pop upto the West End to see ‘That Face’ on the 28th.
    I am a very keen theatre-goer but location/circumstances have dictated that I have had to curtail my interest during the last few years.I left the Duke of York’s after the matinee in a state of pure joy.The acting and script combined resulted in a superb piece of theatre and I am very much looking forward to Polly Stenham’s next masterpiece and to the possible TV/film adaptation.
    The actor who shone out for me the most was Matt Smith as Henry.His utter despair and breakdown at the end was very thought provoking and unforgettable.
    The on-stage urination along with Martha giving her son an incestuous love bite were shocking but only added to the brilliance of the play.

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