Tusk Tusk

Polly Stenham
Royal Court Theatre Upstairs
(2009)

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When Polly Stenham wrote That Face, the question was whether she would be able to repeat the multi-award-winning trick. On the strength of Tusk Tusk, the answer is a resounding "no".

The story and characters are practically identical but dramatic tension is missing until the last quarter-hour and Tusk Tusk lacks the freshness of what was a really fine first play.

The problem appears to be that the young writer draws almost exclusively from her own experience and then runs variations on the theme. This time though, she attempts it with the colourful mother a conspicuous absentee, leaving behind a mini Lord of the Flies scenario.

This psychological drama takes place in the Robert Innes Hopkins-designed new home of what is effectively a no-parent family. After moving them down to London, Claire has deserted her three children, who thereby get the chance to behave tediously badly for eight days (condensed into two hours).

The good news is that three untried young actors come through the evening with honour in difficult circumstances. Toby Regbo is 15 year old Eliot, a seriously violent Mummy's boy who, like new Doctor Who Matt Smith's character in That Face, has inherited Mummy's instability.

He seems to regard his younger sister and brother of seven as slaves and punchbags and for no apparent reason, they accept this.

The brains of the family lie with Maggie, played by the highly promising Bel Powley. She repeatedly thinks more deeply than her spaced-out brother despite his one-year age advantage.

The children misbehave but their perpetually irritated neighbour does nothing and neither does anyone else. This just encourages Eliot to persist in the delusion that their disturbed and suicidal mother will return.

With little food but much weird behaviour, the story can be sickening and the biggest victim is cheerful little Finn, who will put up with anything. On the night under review, Finn Bennett in this part proved to be a capable actor and top class dancer.

The suspension of disbelief required is immense, as the youthful trio are already on the Social Services risk register and their absent pill-popping, mad mother is possibly dead. In any event, old friends are aware that she is seriously unwell, the upstairs neighbour keeps banging on the door and ceiling and a 7-year-old shops alone without anyone seemingly caring.

Eventually, those family friends turn up for the evening's most dramatic scene, as home truths spill out and they battle out their own issues leaving the ( in two cases literally) badly wounded, home-alone kids to go off for further fun-filled frolics.

Polly Stenham has a streak of meanness that some might enjoy but seems gratuitous second time around. Her third major play will, like the second, be eagerly awaited but now with serious reservations.

She is clearly capable of writing well but needs to find new characters and material if she wants a career in the theatre rather than soaps.

Playing until 2 May

Reviewer: Philip Fisher

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