first night

That Face

Tom Harper watches a family in crisis in Bailey Theatre Company's latest production.

 Having absolutely no foreknowledge about Polly Stenham’s ‘That Face’, I did not know what to expect when entering St John’s Chapel to see BTC’s take on the play, and was, like many other audience members, both surprised and intrigued to be thrown headfirst into its dark and foreboding atmosphere by a faceless and bound Polly Norkett eerily sitting on stage. The combination of chillingly upbeat music and the haunting scene laid out before me was typical of Nikhil Vyas’ black comedy directorial style, and it was impressive to see him adapt it to a piece that is certainly no laughing matter.

‘That Face’ tells the story of Martha (Carrie Gaunt), a bitterly alone and mentally ill mother divorced from her husband Hugh (John Halstead), a wealthy suit who lives in Hong Kong with his new wife and child. Her son Henry (Alex Colville), a budding artist, has devoted his life since 13 to caring for her, convincing himself that if he can only keep her out of hospital she will recover. His sister, Mia (Lydia Feerick) is regarded by her mother as an unwelcome rival for Henry's affections. The plot is simple and yet intense, with the interplay between its complex characters being challenging for any actor, and yet the cast seem to pull it off. Halstead’s emotionally cauterised father figure plays well off of Feerick’s sassy yet troubled qualities on stage, whilst Angharad Philips, albeit slightly rushing her lines at times, nevertheless convincingly portrays the toxicity of Izzy, one of Mia’s school friends. Special mention must go to Colville and Gaunt, who steal the show with the emotional intensity that they bring to the stage. Gaunt’s ability to come across as both vulnerable and dislikeable drew viewers into the various nuances of her character, inviting us to both pity and scorn her simultaneously, and she impressively maintained this liminality throughout the performance. Colville’s balancing of Henry’s capacity for rage, despair and self-control is also notable, with his breakdown in the play’s final scene keeping the audience breathlessly on the edge of their seats.

This said, whilst the play’s climax was expertly delivered by all those involved, the first half seemed slightly flat by comparison. Occasional drops in energy and fumbling of lines often led to key plot points almost being missed; a problem that whilst easy to resolve can be troublesome if left unaddressed. Nevertheless, the performance’s tremendous crescendo is worth the build-up, and the entire cast should be commended for a slick and seamless show. Furthermore, in spite of the many challenges posed by staging the play in a Chapel, Vyas and first-time director Ambika Mod must be congratulated on their professional use of the space. The intimate proximity between audience and actors effectively emphasised the piece’s claustrophobic and intense atmosphere, and although the lack of space risked leaving the performance static, imaginative scene-changes and good use of lighting and sound kept the audience intrigued and entertained. A thoroughly enjoyable but also thought-provoking evening is in store for those who dare to delve into the emotionally charged world of BTC’s latest production.

4 December 2015

The views expressed in the reviews and comments on this page are those of the reviewer, and are not representative of the views of DST or Durham University.
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