Tuesday, 6 January 2009

Doctor Who- I'm Sure I've Seen That Face Before (nice pun work there)

Being a chemistry student I'll admit I am a bit of geek. Well it used to be just plain geek now its more theatre geek, as one friend put it "I didn't know that theatre geeks existed until you arrived". And hence one way in which this geekiness manifests is in my love of Doctor Who, so like any self respecting Doctor Who fan did I took a little break from revision to find out who would be filling David Tennant's rather attractive shoes. I was all prepared for some boring middle aged man to get the role (and then hope and pray his companion would be interesting enough for the both of them). Instead we get a sneak glimpse of a young, rather sexy new Doctor; I sit there staring at the screen thinking that looks really familiar...then it hits me. MATT SMITH!! I started jumping up and down screaming, scaring my parents and consequently missing half his interview.

So why was I so ecstatic at this decision? Let me take you back to March last year-there were two plays that I wanted to see/review but my editor would only let me see one so I had to choose between Fat Pig and That Face. I don't really like the Trafalgar Studios so I opted for That Face at the Duke of Yorks. A friend had mentioned that she went to sixth form with one of the actors in it, playing Maria to his Riff in West Side Story (well can you guess who that was?!). What follows is the resulting review of that nights' play (the original edit) and hence the reason why I am so happy about the new Doctor Who!
(Just a clarification- the original text sent that night was to that same friend and originally said something along the lines of "Just saw That Face, Matt Smith was FUCKING AMAZING, and pretty fit too! Is he the one you went to school with?")

That Face (or Why Alcohol is Bad part 1*)
*Part 2 is the headache the next day as the play is so short you spent the rest of the night in the pub.
This was my second visit to the Duke of York’s theatre since I’ve started writing for Felix the first being to see the ill-fated “Rent Remixed” and it appears they haven’t done much to the theatre since then as even the set seemed very familiar. After having to run to the theatre to get there in time due to an uncooperative tube I just had time to flick through the program to find that a) the friend I was with had seen Lindsay Duncan (Martha) on stage before and b) Hannah Murray (Mia) was the anorexic one in Skins.
That Face was originally performed at the Royal Court Sloane Square one of the forerunners for original playwrights. It has helped to develop pieces such as East is East and Shopping and Fucking and has gained much acclaim in nurturing new talent. The talent in this case is Polly Stenham. That Face is Stenham’s debut play and an incredible debut at that, a remarkable feat given that she was only nineteen when she wrote it (I only found this out whilst writing this review and am now thoroughly depressed as I’m nineteen and all I’ve got to show for my life is a rather large debt). After it’s well received premiere at the Royal Court Upstairs last year, That Face has now arrived at the Duke of York’s theatre with a bang, or perhaps a loud guitar riff would be more fitting.
Many plays I’ve seen have a tendency to be wimpish about informing you of the actual plot-not here, the first scene is the catalyst for everything else you’re about to see. We are taken to a private school girl’s dorm where a balaclavered girl is being given her “initiation” apart from we never see the initiation as she’s been drugged with valium and is hence unconscious. What makes this worse is that she’s been drugged by an incompetent fifteen year old. We learn that this fifteen year old is Mia (Hannah Murray), the daughter of Martha (Lindsay Duncan) an incompetent drunk/pill pusher who is being provided for by her son Henry (Matt Smith). Henry is trying to keep his family together and also keep their life a secret from his father Hugh (Julian Wadham) who is with his second wife in Hong Kong. The first two scenes showed the contrast between the lives of mother and daughter, Mia’s boarding school life is orderly almost on military lives with Izzy her house leader as sergeant juxtaposed against her mother’s tiny trashed house strewn with wine bottles and books. The whole situation is real life turned on its head, Henry acts as both mother and father to Mia and Martha, Martha being the uncooperative stubborn teenager and Hugh the prodigal son.
As the play progresses we see the effects that Mia’s impending expulsion from school has on the family, well everyone but Martha- she doesn’t seem to care as she’s drunk. Stenham ensures that each character treats the situation in a way that’s realistic to them- Mia doesn’t think it’s a problem, Henry nearly falls apart and Hugh just throws money at the problem. Throughout this Martha appears to be in her own world where it is just she and Henry who she treats as both a young boy and a soldier although he is an eighteen year old art student. The situation comes to a head in the final scene where (for once) the storyline is actually resolved (I won’t say how, you’ll have to see the play for yourself) In my experience this is a rare but good thing for a straight play to do; I’ve just paid to see a story I don’t want to have to make up the ending for myself! Grr
The play moved at such a pace that I had no time to look at my programme (something I usually do when bored) and so I expected I would have time to do that during the interval. But by the last scene as all the ends were being tied up and there was no where else for the play to go I got a bit suspicious. When the cast came out for their bows I realised there was no interval thus proving that Wikipedia is wrong as it claimed the play was in two parts. Oh well, at least it meant I couldn’t waste my money on wanky ice cream.
I thought “That Face” was an incredibly intelligent and astute look at a family in turmoil, Stenham’s writing was fresh and up to date without losing the classic feel of a west end play. Her observations of life as a teenager were witty and shrewd, obviously it helps that she was still one herself whilst writing. Although I’ve never been faced with the problems addressed by the play I felt that the writing was realistic and I could understand and sympathise with all the characters and their emotions. Of course this couldn’t have been achieved without the efforts of the director and the actors.
Jeremy Herrin’s use of the space (the Duke of York’s is a rather square space hence a bit deeper and narrow than you’d want) was really inventive, storing the main bed set at the back so that you are constantly reminded of the state of Martha’s world and the looming chaos and having the bed slide down the set as if being thrust back into the audience’s mind. I also loved his scene transitions, as the set was very minimalistic with no backgrounds as such and so everything happened in this white space. The characters from the last scene would stay in a slight blackout as if observing the next characters’ lives. The next characters would bring on the scenery for their scene like bringing their emotional baggage with them.
The quality of acting was astounding (or as I put in a text to a friend afterwards “IT WAS FUCKING AMAZING!!!”). The only weak link I found to be Hannah Murray, she seemed at times to not quite understand her character’s motivation for her actions almost saying the lines but not taking in their meaning. I think this will come with time and as she plays the role more will become more confident and more aware of herself as the character of Mia. Someone I haven’t mentioned yet is Catherine Steadman as Izzy, the school bully and posh totty. Allow this is only a small part she stole every scene she was in as this nonchalant, selfish bitch who only cared about getting out of trouble and getting laid (both of which she achieves). Lindsay Duncan, as expected, was outstanding as the out-of-her-head Martha. She made her character loveable despite what she had done to her family but could turn her emotions at any point just as a real drunk would. Her relationship with Henry varied from absolute adoration to shear hatred and a pseudo-sexual relationship much in the style of Freud, Martha gives Henry a lovebite in an attempt to mark him as her territory. Look out of her “conversation” with the talking clock- absolute genius! The individual that stood out most for me was Matt Smith as Henry, at first I wasn’t too sure about him- his accent was funny in a stuck up posh way and I couldn’t work out why he seemed to be acting like a small child. This was all part of the character playing up to his mother to keep her reality alive. As the play progressed Smith’s character struggles to hold his family together until he finally snaps. The final scene was harrowing and heartbreaking as Henry loses it whilst dressed in his mothers nightgown and pearls. Smith made his pain accessible to the audience, opening himself up completely. I was truly disturbed by his transition from normal teenager to a character more like his mother.
That Face is a genuine, freakish look at modern family life and essential viewing for anyone who likes to drink lots of alcohol or know someone who does. It’s a harrowing tale of what alcohol can to do to you and those around you; ultimately it is not the drunk whose life is ruined but the people who care for them.
Also, for the bragging rights, I can say I've seen his cock as for some reason during the play he changes out of his pyjamas. On Stage. He didn't have any pants on. It was bigger than Daniel Radcliffe's.

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