Polly Stenham’s second play Tusk Tusk, which came to the stage in 2009, was also her second (following her acclaimed debut at the age of 19 with That Face) to deal with teenagers coping with unreliable, unstable and/or downright absent parents. Writing about that work, I opined that “for whatever reason, we are all on tenterhooks for Stenham’s third play”. That caveat was because it was hard to avoid the inference (although harder to express it tactfully) that Stenham might be compulsively working out personal issues on stage. If anything, that awkward sensation has only intensified now that that third play has arrived.
No Quarter, staged as Stenham is 26, centres on a 24-year-old protagonist who begins in a similar situation, but it develops into an account of his coming to terms (or not) with the loss of both parents. Once again the principal characters are drawn from the social ranks of the comfortably off, although as individuals they may (as with central character Robin) be comparatively impoverished.
The playwright, who lives in a large house in a kind of artistic colony, has set her latest play in a large country house filled with artistic disarray; the university dropout’s protagonist is a music-school dropout. His nearest friends include a pair of twins, albeit a non-identical brother/sister pair unlike actors Luke and Harry Treadaway who are close associates of Stenham (though neither appears in Jeremy Herrin’s production).
As in her previous plays, No Quarter contains a sibling relationship in which the younger member is far more of a loose cannon. The two new elements are the aforementioned sense of bereavement and its consequences, with a character having no choice but to face the world alone, and a deal of onstage argument about the social responsibility of the wealthy dilettante. Tom Sturridge sets out to make Robin magnetic without being likeable: he succeeds in the latter aim but not the former. A succession of other characters serve only to display and then interrogate Robin’s personality.
In many ways, it is ultimately irrelevant whether or not Stenham is mining a vein of deep personal preoccupation; after all, Tennessee Williams kept returning to the same themes too; others have done the same. What is salient is the extent to which she can make these themes speak to and for others. On that point, I fear the benefit of the doubt has run out.