Left - Ashley Ricardo and Leon Cain. Cover - Lauren O'Rourke
Martha - as she insists on being called, not mum - is quietly shattered to discover son Henry is straight. She had assumed the caring, artistic apple of her eye was gay. "You see the world the wrong way around," an exasperated Henry tells his mother.
It encapsulates the character of Martha, the off-centre axis on which this dysfunctional family rotates in That Face. She is ill, mentally, though we're not really told how or why. Bi-polar, perhaps. She is a drunk, wildly unpredictable, entirely unable to function without Henry or outside their small London home.
Henry, 18, has become a boy in a bubble. He quit school five years earlier to look after his mother and it has consumed his life. As much as Martha needs him, Henry has become dependent on the constant care of his mother, knowing little of the world outside. No friends, as she reminds him, and never been kissed. Martha mentors his sketch artistry between the drunken highs and miserable lows. They have a strange, loving fix on each other. Both effectively imprisoned by their psychology and each other.
We open the dark closet on this family as Henry's sister, Mia, is expelled from her exclusive boarding school. Unlike Henry, Mia has no tolerance for her mother, who wants nothing to do with her daughter. The missing patriarch, a wealthy financial broker living a new life with a new family in Hong Kong, makes a mercy dash back to London to buy his daughter out of trouble and investigate for himself the deteriorating situation at home. The explosive family reunion forces each to confront past hurt and the devastating reality for Martha and Henry that they are no longer healthy for each other (and maybe never were).
This is a rich, authentic character study. The power of the piece had the first-night crowd shocked into a deadly silence. It feels like an intrusion, occasionally excruciating, into these people's lives; right into Martha's bedroom, in fact, where so much of the story takes place and where the cracks in her mind open up before our eyes over the almost two-hour intermission-free drama. It doesn't seem this long: there's little exposition here, only climax as we learn what brought these people here through the painful flashbacks they endure.
If it all sounds brutally bleak, it often is. But there's great wit, too, and tremendous heart. As a piece of writing it is a revelation. Indeed, precocious young British writer Polly Stenham's first and to-date only play (it was first staged in London in 2007) was described by one reviewer as "one of the most astonishing debuts I have seen in more than 30 years of theatre reviewing". Nobody should be able to write this well at the age of 19. It's just not fair.
The Queensland Theatre Company, with director Nic Dorward, has faithfully replanted the play and, perhaps wisely, left the London setting and British accents in place (not that the story is particularly British; there is universal relevance here). The expansive space of the Billie Brown Studio allows the characters to move seamlessly to different scenes, tied together by a brilliantly jarring neon light display above (lighting designer Carolyn Emerson) and synchronised soundtrack (composer Steve Toulmin).
As Martha, Helen Howard often plays the role for laughs, seemingly inspired by that most famous disgraced British drunk Edina from Absolutely Fabulous (the comparison is sometimes unavoidable). Which isn’t to take away from an extraordinary performance. She rides Martha’s emotional rollercoaster to near-madness with all the frenetic intensity of a sick mind. It is a devastating portrayal.
Leon Cain’s Henry is also fully-formed, an almost as exhausting performance from a young actor that oozes charisma while disappearing completely into the English brogue and emotionally-wrought role. Eugene Gilfedder is suitably stiff and cold as the father, and Ashley Ricardo is convincing as Mia, though Lauren O’Rourke as the ditzy best friend (with eyes for Henry) is a little over-cooked.
Ultimately, That Face is a story about family ties and growing up, from a new talent writing with maturity far beyond her years. Brisbane theatregoers have struck gold in seeing material of this calibre, of such truth and beauty, performed locally. Don’t miss the chance.
Queensland Theatre Company
by Polly Stenham
Director Nic Dorward
Venue: Bille Brown Studio
Dates: 23 March – 18 April 2009
Times: Mon - Tues 6.30pm Wed - Sat 7.30pm Matinees Wed 1pm & Sat 2pm
Tickets: $36 - $56, Under 30: $30