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Intimate doesn’t begin to describe That Face, the new production from Melbourne’s cosy acting company Red Stitch. Suffocating seems more apt. This British-yet-ubiquitous family portrait is powerful stuff; a twisted mother-and-son love story that explodes on the company’s diminutive stage.

Martha — as she insists on being called, not mum — is 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 Martha, the off-centre axis of this dysfunctional family. She is ill, bi-polar perhaps, constantly drunk, wildly unpredictable and entirely unable to function without Henry or outside their small London flat.

Henry has become a boy in a bubble. He quit school to look after his mother and it has consumed his life. As much as Martha needs him, Henry has become dependent on his care-giving role, 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, effectively imprisoned by their psychology.

We open the dark closet on this family as Henry’s sister, Mia, is expelled from her exclusive boarding school. 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 fiery 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).

First staged in London in 2007, Polly Stenham wrote this at the age of 19. Which just isn’t fair. One West End reviewer described this as “one of the most astonishing debuts I have seen in more than 30 years of theatre reviewing”. It is gifted, revelatory writing; a story about growing up from a playwright of maturity well beyond her years.

I fell in love with this work after a Queensland Theatre Company production last year. If anything it works better here — magnified in this almost claustrophobic space, with wrenching performances from a wonderful cast. Sarah Sutherland rides Martha’s emotional rollercoaster to near-madness with all the frenetic intensity of a sick mind; Tim Potter, too, is devastating as Henry, in a performance as mature as his character is forced to become.

That Face is rare theatre, indeed: bleak yet buoyant, witty and wise, heartfelt and hopeful, as good a contemporary drama as you’ll see on stage this year. Melbourne theatre-goers should not miss the chance.

The details: That Face plays at the Red Stitch Theatre in St Kilda East until May 29. Limited tickets are available on the company’s website. And there’s plenty of quality independent theatre around the country if you’re not in Melbourne. In Brisbane, try The Timely Death of Victor Blott, a gothic fairytale for grown-ups, which combines puppetry and live performance. We’re hearing great things about this one; it opens tonight at Metro Arts. In Sydney, Rain Man — that of the Oscar-winning movie — is playing in preview at the Ensemble Theatre ahead of next week’s opening, with the always-good Alex Dimitriades in the lead.

Peter Fray

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