first night

Tusk Tusk by Polly Stenham

Jonnie Grande finds Latest Theatre Company's production of Polly Stenham's 'Tusk Tusk' anything but child's play.

Polly Stenham’s Tusk Tusk centres on a young boy, Eliot (Gianni Laino), who is suddenly forced to grow up very quickly, and his younger sister, Maggie (Emily Saddler), who has already seen more than you would wish on any child. Get those two right, and it could be a powerful and absorbing play.

Unfortunately, however, Laino and Saddler come up slightly short against this, albeit formidable, challenge and the production only occasionally recovers. From Laino’s very first entrance, complete with his perfectly-formed abs, he appears older than Eliot’s fifteen years, and so the crisis he finds himself presiding over fails to give rise to the tension it should. His relationship with Saddler is equally unclear. As the first few scenes progress, they could just as well have been two romantically involved mature teenagers as two young siblings.

That said, some of the individual emotional climaxes are rendered suitably distressing, particularly those centring on Thomas McNulty, who enjoys considerably more success as the third sibling, seven-year old Finn. As McNulty screams in agony, with his face covered in blood, and Laino struggles to simultaneously comfort and restrain him, we yearn for them to follow Maggie’s advice and get him to a hospital. Or as Laino climbs over Saddler to violently stuff crisps into her mouth, the psychological impact of the situation on both of them is fully brought home.

The production boasts other strong elements. The supporting roles are generally well-executed, especially Catherine Rose Ellis’ pitch-perfect upper-middle-class Katie, portrayed with just the right sprinkling of tragicomedy. And Ash Ogden’s sound design is among the best I’ve heard in Durham.

However the set, too expansive for its function, serves only to hinder the actors. The three children, boxed in both physically and psychologically, are nonetheless given acres of space in which to wander, and thus rarely appear truly confined. The stage is opened up further by being lit with a bright, white light that only seems to get brighter as the play chases towards its conclusion. Furthermore, the actors are left with little to occupy themselves on stage, and so often have nothing to do but simply trade lines. McNulty is the exception, always busying himself with some form of quasi-animalistic activity; most poignant is the moment he licks out all the crisp packets left strewn around the floor in an attempt to find just one more crumb of food.

This very lack of activity perhaps contributes towards the major obstacle preventing The Latest Theatre Company finding success. Essentially, everything happens too fast. The dialogue fairly races along, and at times it well should. But at times we need to breathe, and so do the cast. Instead, the pace is relentless. And with no variation in tempo, with no pauses, Laino’s and Saddler’s mood changes jolt the audience from hostility to compassion, from aggression to affection like a dot-to-dot that’s yet to be joined up. We never see their mood changing, it just happens. There is no through-line. And without that, it is hard to believe them, and even harder to feel for them. 

Tusk Tusk is a competent and polished production, but too clinical in its execution. It seems to have lost its teenage heart somewhere along the way, and last night was still searching for it.

10 June 2011

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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