By Simon Fearn
When you go to watch a play directed by Nikhil Vyas, you kind of know what to expect. It will most likely be difficult to watch in many places, harrowing from start to finish, with humour (if there is any) of the blackest shade. Suitably armed to be disturbed and appalled, I left That Face feeling shaken and astounded, and very teary. Bailey Theatre Company’s production of Polly Stenham’s That Face, written when the author was just 19, is a tour de force of remarkable characterisation and accomplished stagecraft.
Stenham’s play is as subtle as it is shocking, and Vyas and his team have worked hard to reflect that. This is a production that would never have worked in The Assembly Rooms Theatre; the audience have to be up close and personal with the characters, and feel themselves immersed in the intimate family drama. For lesser actors this would have been a terrifying prospect, but the cast excelled in communicating emotion via subtle gestures: the curve of a lip, the trembling of a hand, or the moistening of an eye. There were parts of the play that could easily have slipped into melodrama in the wrong hands, but Vyas was constantly reining in all excesses. The most shocking moments were often those when the least was said, and they were often beautifully understated.
The highlights of this production for me were the performances of Lydia Feerick as Mia and Carrie Gaunt as Martha. Feerick shows us Mia experiencing almost every emotion under the sun: malicious glee, petulant posturing and finally genuine heartbreak and disillusionment. She utterly became her character: her physicality and phrasing made her utterly believably as a troubled yet charming teenager.
Carrie Gaunt, meanwhile, had a fairly daunting task on her hands: how do you make an audience sympathise with a disturbed woman who has prevented her son from leading a life independent from her? In Gaunt’s case, with tremendous ease. We could simultaneously feel her precarious mental state and realise that it was, in part, a performance to prevent Henry from leaving her. She was both repellent and absorbing, and always commanded the stage.
Henry himself, played by Alex Colville, took on much of the responsibility for the play’s emotional fireworks. Yet he could not compare with the subtle characterisation of Feerick and Gaunt, often acting as a foil to their more charismatic presences. When it came to raw emotion though, Colville really pulled out all the stops. Just when you thought the final scene couldn’t torture your heartstrings any further, Colville is waiting to deal the killer blow. Be warned.
John Halstead’s portrayal of Hugh, Henry and Mia’s father who has started a new life in Hong Kong, was a little disappointing. One can’t help wondering how much more complex the play would have been if one could feel more for Hugh than contempt. In the generally perfect final scene, Halstead’s patronising tone with his children (who he essentially left to care for his unstable ex-wife) failed to hit home, and he was reduced to a peripheral figure compared with the rest of the cast’s blistering performances.
Angharad Philips, however, shone in an intense portrayal of a callous boarding school queen bee, but she sometimes lacked subtlety. Her advances on Henry were more alarming than seductive, and when Mia tells her brother “I think she fancies you”, she is saying something that is laughably obvious.
I had a few minor gripes. The transitions between the scenes were sometimes overly fussy, and the long blackouts they necessitated hindered the flow of the action. Saying this, on occasion these pauses in the play left time for the brutal close of the previous scene to sink in — it is a rare production where even the scene transitions add to the overall effect. The minimalist lighting was generally very good, but a problem with the lights slightly marred the perfect ending of a near-perfect play.
Following on from the success of Blasted earlier this term, it seems everything that Vyas and BTC touch turns to gold. This little gem of a play is truly stunning. At the performance’s close, both the cast and the audience had tears in their eyes. It was a beautifully acted and directed take on a thrillingly multi-layered text. In short, I implore you to go and see it.
‘The Face’ will be performed until Sat 5 Dec in St John’s Chapel, St John’s College. Book your tickets here.
Photograph: Isabelle Pallier