Let's face it, dysfunctional families are good for a laugh

That Face by Polly Stenham
Directed by Shane Bosher
Silo Theatre
Herald Theatre, the Edge
Until April 10

English playwright Polly Stenham wrote That Face in 2007 when she was 19 but she brings an understanding of relationships which one would expect from someone much older. 

This is a play that focuses on that most complex of institutions, the family, of which Tolstoy once famously wrote, “Happy families are all alike, every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."

It is certainly an unhappy family we encounter in That Face.

At the centre of the story is a house-bound, alcoholic, prescription drug taking mother, Martha, and her teenage son, Henry.

Her husband now lives in Hong Kong with his new Asian wife and baby, so Henry has become nursemaid, companion and counsellor to his mother.

The slightly estranged daughter Mia is just about to be expelled from her private school for giving one of her school mates a handful of drugs, which she had stolen from her mother’s supply.

This is the least of the problems the family faces.

Martha, having lost her husband and daughter, is about to lose her son as well unless she goes in for a bit of rehab. But it is the unspoken and unresolved relationship between her and Henry that is the big problem.

While this might not be a classic case of Freudian oedipal complex being explored, it gets close.

This is a family in which the power struggles and relationships have never been defined or acknowledged. That they are not resolved means the children’s lives have already been damaged, destined to repeat the problems of their parents or to create new ones..

While the play is serious about relationships, there is level of humour throughout, and we get to see characters from our own experience and hear the conversations we have had with our own children or parents.

Jennifer Ward-Lealand presents a brilliantly realised dipsomaniac Martha, who wallows in her predicament, incapable of getting help apart from her too willing son. She provides Martha with a set of personae that reveal her almost schizophrenic approach to life and her family.

Dan Weekes as Henry, the apparent rock of the family, gives the character a taut exterior which only just manages to hide the brittle inner person.

Mia, who could be the playwright’s alter ego has a complex and ill defined role, somewhere between observer and provocateur. Chelsie Preston Crawford manages to convey that most of the time but occasionally seems lost on the stage.

Rose McIvor as self-centred, vaguely amoral Izzy provides a clever role in seducing both Mia and Henry, showing the early onset of some of Martha’s problems.

Andrew Grainger as the husband Hugh, gives a suitably sympathetic and belligerent performance while Edith Poor gives her small role as Alice a subtle element of the sinister.

The white set designed by Simon Coleman with a bed surrounded by the detritus of everyday life is a nice metaphor for the pristine exterior and the inner shambles of the lives of the main characters.

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