Every now and then some literary, cinematic or theatrical endeavour becomes the lucky recipient of large quantities of media attention for reasons not confined merely to its artistic merit.
In the case of That Face, which premiered in London at the Royal Court theatre in 2007, this particular phenomenon came about because the play was completed when its creator, Polly Stenham, was only nineteen.
It quickly became a sensation; Stenham won the Evening Standard Award for Most Promising Playwright, and now, finally, the play has moved outside of London and enjoyed its regional debut at the Tron Theatre, under the very able watch of Artistic Director Andy Arnold.
The play begins powerfully, with a ritual hazing ceremony in a posh boarding school going wrong, after cheeky second-in-command Mia slips the new girl one too many Valium, pushing her into a narcotic slumber from which neither Mia nor Head Girl Izzy can revive her.
It is a fantastic opening — startlingly convincing, energetic, and with an ear for dialogue so acute it can only have come from a teenager. It also relies on excellent timing from the young actors who play Izzy and Mia, which Hannah Donaldson and Hollie Gordon have perfected.
Izzy (Donaldson), after initially acting the part of the omnipotent dorm leader, panics when faced with a comatose child; the bravado and posturing suddenly evaporated and replaced with the fear of expulsion. Mia (Gordon) senses the weakness in her peer and bursts into life, exposing Izzy’s vulnerabilities with surgical precision whilst laughing off whatever trouble she has entered them into.
From this scene, which unfolds in an intense, practically voyeuristic manner, Arnold and Stenham artfully contrive their entire audience into a state of perpetual nervous anticipation, constantly awaiting the next terrible misfortune or act of adolescent braggadocio.
Stenham is not just concerned with the antics of a few mean and high-spirited schoolgirls, though. The violent first scene is just a set-up; not the play’s dramatic centrepiece.
Mia is sent home, where she must face her family: a mother who is descending further and further into a life of alcoholism and drug-addled incoherence (the Valium belonged to her); an older brother who has given up on his own life in order to be with her, and a father who is returning from Hong Kong (and his new family) in order to confront the chaos he has left behind him. Immediately, family dynamics become the central force impelling the action of the play forward.
Alone in a tiny flat together, Mia’s mother Martha (Kathryn Howden) and brother Henry (James Young) act out a sordid, proto-Oedipal relationship in which Martha is ostensibly teaching her son to be an artist like her, but which actually exists so that Henry can enable his mother’s chronic addictions with the naivety and love of a young man forced to grow up too quickly. When Mia enters the scene, incipient tensions begin to erupt as each family member is forced to confront the truth of their own life. The onstage chemistry between Gordon, Howden and Young is truly superb, and never more so than in the second act, during which the two siblings argue over which is responsible for their mother’s current state. Their emotions, although urgent and real, are controlled, and the action is never reduced to melodrama or farce.
Even the comparative weakness of some of the dialogue (at one stage, Henry bellows to his father: “You can’t just come here in your chinos with a solution!”, which feels like little more than shorthand for ‘middle class family in trouble’), is belied by the strength with which it is delivered.
Arnold is obviously keen to give this production a distinctly Glaswegian feel, and his efforts have yielded mixed results. The changed location names and sense of geography really feels like little more than a cut-and-paste job without much conviction, but the mannerisms and evocation of family that the director has drawn from his cast are authentically, believably Scottish.
Some of those endeavours that achieve sudden widespread fame do nothing to earn it, save some media-friendly gimmick. Arnold’s That Face, on the other hand, deserves every column inch of praise that it receives.