Tusk Tusk | Sydney Theatre Company and ATYPLeft - Airlie-Jane Dodds and Kai Lewins. Cover - Airlie-Jane Dodds, Kai Lewins and Miles Szanto. Photos - Brett Boardman

Audiences may remember young British writer, Polly Stenham’s hit play, That Face, produced by Company B earlier this year. Her second play, Tusk Tusk, written at 22 years old, covers similar ground, depicting the pain of neglected children from their own points of view.

The day after a middle class family arrives at their new flat in London, their mentally unbalanced mother, a serial absconder, takes off. The three kids, 15 year old Eliot, 14 year old Maggie and 7 year old Finn are used to coping alone, but this time their resilience is stretched to the limit. Dad died years before and the family is already on the “at risk” register. The kids are in a bind: terrified about their mother’s safety, yet unable to alert the authorities for fear they will be separated into foster care.

So they wait in the living room, surrounded by unpacked boxes, sleeping during the day, hoping their mother will return or call them. Little Finn (gorgeously played by Zac Ynfante on opening night) carries on mostly oblivious to the situation, immersed in his own Where the Wild Things Are fantasy land.

As desperate as the situation might seem, Stenham alleviates the bleakness throughout with humour and physical comedy. Maggie and Eliot are kids after all, and even when kids are in trouble, they romp and joke around. Director Shannon Murphy’s high energy production has tapped into this and balances Eliot and Maggie’s anxieties with irrepressible teenage exuberance.

The play hinges on the performances of the two leads, Airlie-Jane Dodds as Maggie and Miles Szanto as Eliot. Both are terrific. Airlie-Jane Dodds in particular is both funny and heartfelt and very much in command. If she is just a 16 year old school girl now, I can’t wait so see what sort of emotional power and technique she will deliver when she is older.

While the first act suffers from a few slow moments, it also delivers some of the most entertaining scenes of the play. Stenham’s witty dialogue expresses a lovely playfulness between Maggie and Eliot with Dodds and Szanto making the most of its funny and touching charm.

There is an interesting dynamic between these two siblings who are bound closely together through their mutual adversity. They do, however, see their predicament very differently. Maggie is more pragmatic, worried both about her mother’s safety and how they will survive alone. Eliot, who usually takes charge when his mother is not there, seems quite happy to fritter away their money on his cockney girlfriend (sympathetically played by Krew Boylan) and beer while occasionally bringing home cold Chinese take away and bags of crisps for family meals.

The conflict between these points of view creates the dramatic tension of the second act, pointing to the hurtful way that siblings can be treated differently by their mothers. Maggie continually reminds him about the reality of their mother’s drunkenness and promiscuity, but Eliot is in denial.

The situation gets more serious in the second act and the three kids are clearly out of their depth. Now they are not just hungry, but Finn is hurt and Eliot is acting badly. Then a couple of family friends, Katie (Marta Dusseldorp) and Roland (Cameron Stewart) drop in, bringing with them a few more complications. This scene isn’t as well realised as the rest. The cast struggle to bring these two thinly drawn characters to life. I am still a little confused why Marta Dusseldorp’s Katie was such an obnoxious middle class stereotype when everything the character actually says and does is actually well meaning.

Some of Stenham’s choices also challenge credibility. I would have thought that kids who have grown up with a dysfunctional mother would be more self reliant. They would know how to organise food and maintain a semblance of order to keep Welfare at bay.

Does it matter though? The truths in the play do not come from verisimilitude. The dynamic between Maggie and Eliot and their relationships with their mother is the heart of the play. They are essentially the man and woman of the household and their relationship reflects this. What holds them together is their fear of being separated and their value of life together as a family.

Jacob Nash’s set is a mostly empty living room, piled high with packing boxes. The emotional chaos is reflected in the mounting disorder of the set as the mess and dishevelment increases and the kids get dirtier and bloodier. Steve Francis provides a thrashy, anarchic rock sound track that sets the right tone.

Tusk Tusk suffers from a lack of dramatic impetus at times in the first act and tips over into melodrama towards the end of the second act. It is nevertheless a genuine celebration of the resilience of young siblings within a dysfunctional family that is both funny and moving.

Sydney Theatre Company and Australian Theatre for Young People present
Tusk Tusk
by Polly Stenham

Director Shannon Murphy

Location: Wharf 1, Sydney Theatre Company, Pier 4/5, Hickson Road, Walsh Bay
Dates: 13 August - 4 September 2010.
Contact: Box Office 02 9250 1777 | sydneytheatre.com.au

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