That Face ****

There is a moment near the end of That Face, when the final showdown begins, where the entire production feels like it is catapulted from third to fifth gear.  It is an electric mixture of excellent writing, performance and direction, and the result just might be the strongest scene witnessed in Scottish theatre this year.  Getting to that moment, however, is a bit of an uneven path.

That Face is written by Polly Stenham and premiered at the Royal Court two years ago to great acclaim, and it is easy to see why.  Stenham has an almost frighteningly polished skill for someone so young (she was 19), and her play, about a destructive broken home, not only rings true but contains interesting characters and believable dialogue.  She rarely takes the easy way and has most of her characters commit some questionable actions without too much moral judgement.  It is a brave play that is hard to find in modern theatre, especially by a first-time writer.

Director Andy Arnold’s production plays the action straight.  Even though scenes jump around in location there is always a sense of realistic urgency.  It is well produced, looks great and constantly engages with heavy drama and comedic flourishes.

The cast are also up to the challenge of the play.  Kathryn Howden has the hardest role as the drunk and pilled-up matriarch Martha, a character who is vicious one second and then apologetic the next.  She comes across as a chained animal, one that’s easy to admire from afar but would probably tear your throat out if you got too close.  The rest of the cast, including James Young and Hollie Gordon as Martha’s children Henry and Mia, along with Hannah Donaldson as Mia’s school chum Izzy, are believable and sympathetic.  Even Phil McKee’s Hugh, a supporting character that could have easily been played as a wooden villain, comes across instead as a fully-fleshed but flawed human.

And yet, the performances of the scenes leading towards that climatic moment are a bit stilted at times.  Nothing is weak, but there are certain times when it feels as if the cast are pulling their punches, especially in the first act.  Stenham’s script is filled with such energy and passion and there are moments where the words are coloured in anger but said in an almost annoyed hue.  Whether this is to save creative energy for that wonderful final scene or not is unknown, but it is apparent.

Still, That Face is a solid production.  It has great direction and performances, and it proves why Stenham is considered a writer to watch.  It is a theatrical tour de force that just might prove to be one of this year’s best.

Originally written for Onstage Scotland.

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