I wonder what the Daily Mail think of Polly Stenham? They probably go in for the general chorus of adoration, which'd be hilarious since she makes it her business to portray that paper's holy of holies, the Middle Class FamilyTM, as more fucked up than the average council estate could dream of. Her first play, That Face, offered the now-notorious (round here at least) Astonishing Coup de Theatre by future Doctor Who star Matt Smith. Obviously I can't help but worry going into Tusk Tusk that with her second play Stenham might try and outdo herself and offer an Astonishing Poo de Theatre, but fortunately this doesn't happen.
This time the kids are younger and the mother is entirely absent (we find out the father died of cancer some years back.) The family have just moved into a new house in London when the mother does one of her regular disappearing acts. The oldest two, 15-year old Eliot (Toby Regbo) and 14-year old Maggie (Bel Powley) have decided they will stay hidden in the flat so as not to alert the authorities, because they're worried 7-year-old Finn (Finn Bennett or Austin Moulton - the Royal Court didn't have an announcement as to which child actor was performing tonight, but whichever one he was he was excellent) will be taken into care and they'll never see him again. Once again we have the situation where the oldest son is forced to take responsibilities beyond his years, with the added problem that Eliot's hormones are seriously kicking in, especially when Cassie (Georgia Groome) turns up, and he becomes determined to lose his virginity before he turns 16 in a week's time (because he's amused by the fact that it would count as rape.) As Eliot heads towards a breakdown and Finn borders on the feral, Maggie is hiding a guilty secret of her own.
Relying this much on very young actors is a gamble but when it pays off, as it does here, it makes for very exciting theatre. All four of the younger actors are terrific (the only appearance by adults comes right at the end, and they're hardly the rescue party they probably think they are) with a special mention to Bel Powley who deals with some tricky character shifts and is stuck with some tantrums that could easily make her unsympathetic but don't. Although it treads similar ground to That Face I found this to be a marked improvement on her first play, if still flawed (the dialogue is often too precocious and Maggie's not-that-hard-to-guess confession takes too long to come out.) The sense of tension is definitely much stronger here. I'm still not much the wiser about what the title means, mind.
Tusk Tusk by Polly Stenham is booking until the 2nd of May at the Royal Court Jerwood Theatre Upstairs.