‘A play is a backward explosion’, That Face by Polly Stenham, December’s playwright #12newplaywrightsin12months


“Polly” by Twobster7 – self-made Own work, copyleft, attribution required (Multi-license GFDL, all CC-BY-SA). Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 voa Commons.

Part of the Royal Court Young Writers Group, Stenham was 18 when she wrote That Face, the play she submitted at the end of the course that went on to be produced at the Royal Court and the West End. She wanted to write a play about the possible lives of the people attending this famous Chelsea theatre, who live in some of the most expensive property in London and go to the Royal Court to be shocked by the latest theatre but rarely see people like themselves on stage. It also started her exploration of broken family relationships and That Face is now the first of a trilogy where she explores the ‘animalistic side of human nature,’ ‘what you’d really do when someone’s not looking’ and ‘places that aren’t policed’. (All 3 quotes are from this video interview

So what did I learn?


  • Sometimes the best stories are the simple ones

The story of That Face is simple. The 1st scene (which is more like a prologue) incites the action that involves the rest of the play: a school prank goes wrong, the daughter is sent home, her father is called and he comes back from Hong Kong and sends the mother (who’s supposed to be looking after both of their children but who’s been having a mental breakdown) to a mental institution. There are about 4 scenes that are placed outside the home, and the rest are set in the elder brother’s bedroom (he’s been trying to look after their mother after dropping out of school).  There’s no real subplot, the piece moves through the action well and it’s made me think that a play like this must really please its audience: it’s straight forward, not overly complex and you just don’t know how it’s going to be resolved.

Stenham says now that she thinks she was just in the right place at the right time for this play to be picked up. I wonder whether there’s a certain amount of truth in that as with all the talk these days about original work and telling a story not heard before, I’d certainly never think of just telling this kind of story. However, Stenham also says that she felt the audience at the Royal Court had not seen themselves on the stage in this way -a reminder to us all that if you get the right audience in front of a story that directly speaks to them, you’ve got the chance at a very successful play.

  • Make your play explosive

Stenham says someone described writing a play to her as a ‘backward explosion’: after you’ve had your explosion of ideas and creativity it all gets sucked into this play like a bomb ready to be set off by the action of the play (find the quote in this video interview), and that feels like a fitting analogy not only for writing plays but for the play she’s written, though That Face is definitely a forward explosion. When I’m writing I often start thinking about the end (though I don’t realise it). I start thinking about the tussle that’s at the heart of the play and the mass devastation that will occur and then work back from there. I’ve written about plays being a time bomb before (here) but thinking about the process of writing as a backward explosion and even perhaps structuring your process around the mass devastation that will occur later and working back to find out what creates this explosion, and then who serves the bomb up for the characters is a really useful way of thinking about your work in progress. There’s not only a time bomb in That Face -we need to sort things out before Daddy arrives- there’s also an expectation bomb as well which perhaps creates the biggest devastation: when the mother refuses the son’s help and she leaves because his father has told her to, the audience are left wondering if the character of the son will ever get over the shock of his mother (and the centre of his life for so long) leaving him and essentially choosing the father’s help over the son’s. The bomb Stenham plants explodes in the family’s face.

  • Give room for big performances where everything is at stake

Now I know Stenham wasn’t thinking about a West End transfer at all for this show -you can’t think about that kind of thing when you’re writing your first play- however I can absolutely see why it did transfer. At its heart, which has no mention in the action I described in my first bullet (which is an important point to make), is the strange intense relationship between the mother and the son, which becomes the main obstacle to a quick resolution of the story.

There are some lovely intense, challenging acting piece for both mother and son characters and I can imagine when you see the play these performances are thrilling to watch. When my play Godless Monsters was presented this year, I hadn’t quite realised what a great character Esther was for an actress to play until our actress Michal Keyamo was performing her. There are only 2 characters in my play but Esther has the largest emotional range as she goes from the highs of being saved from drowning by God to the depths of despair as she her lover ends their affair. Like Henry, the elder brother in The Face who wants to be the one to save his mother from her mental illness, you see Esther’s struggle against forces she cannot control and it’s this battle that gives actors a lot to play with so they can make the character their own. I remember sitting in the auditorium watching Mikki’s performance thinking how beautiful she’d made my words and how your script, with a good actor, is purely a map for their emotional journey, and it’s their performance that connects those words to the audience successfully. That may be an obvious point, but if you can make sure you give characters intense emotional moments and scenes where they’re fighting against something more extreme, this is not only thrilling for an audience and gets your point across in a way that can’t be ignored, but also, for That Face, means that it has the room to become a star vehicle for a West End run. Matt Smith and Lindsay Duncan played the son and the mother in Stenham’s play and I think another reason why it so swiftly transferred to the West End was because the play gave them a chance to show people what they can do.

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