Broken homes, alcoholic parents, damaged, truant children – these are problems we tend to associate with struggling households on rough estates. But Polly Stenham’s hard-hitting first play scrutinises a wealthy family in freefall. Hugh (Dad) is in Hong Kong with his second wife; Martha (Mum), steeped in alcohol and rattling with pills, has already been sectioned once; Henry, 18, has dropped out of school to try to coax his mother back to sobriety; Mia is about to be expelled from boarding school for doping a younger girl with Valium. They’re well-spoken and well-heeled, but everything else is far from well.
We join them as they hit crisis point. Mia’s behaviour has alerted the school to the fact that she has stolen a stash of Martha’s drugs and that Martha is too drunk to notice. Hugh is on a flight home to tidy up the mess. Henry and Mia are on a desperate mission to sort things out before he touches down. As they row about how best to deal with Martha, Stenham draws a heartfelt picture of two messed-up teenagers trying to cope with the fallout from their parents’ chronic self-absorption.
Stenham is only 20 but she writes fearlessly about grubby emotions. In Martha, she creates a wonderful, awful character: a bundle of insecurity, possessiveness and pain, who wrecks her son by suffocating him with jealous affection. Lindsay Duncan shuffles off her customary poise to play this messy, monstrous woman brilliantly. Duncan looks more gorgeous raddled than most of us do sober and, weaving around in a silk petticoat, she holds the stage, switching from wheedling self-pity to manipulative cruelty in an instant. But her eyes suggest a haunted fear: she gives the character pathos, which explains why Henry (Matt Smith) stays with her despite the unhealthy intensity of their relationship.
Stenham seems more interested in their bond than she is in Mia (Felicity Jones) and Hugh (Julian Wadham), who are, therefore, underwritten. There are other problems too. The play is overloaded (I didn’t believe the Oedipal twist to the mother-son story) and some scenes don’t ring true in spite of Jeremy Herrin’s sensitive production. Nonetheless, this is an assured debut, painful and sometimes painfully funny. The scene in which Martha chats up the talking clock on the phone is a gem.
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