Theatre review: Tusk Tusk / Royal Court, London

Royal Court, London

The second play, they say, is the hardest. But Polly Stenham, having won golden opinions for That Face, with its incestuous mother-son relationship, has come up with another scorching study in emotional desperation.

Again we have a dysfunctional family, damaged children and a bingeing mother. The big difference this time is that we never see the mother, who has left her three offspring to their own anarchic devices in a London flat.

Stenham's play is an eloquent study in escalating anxiety. At first, 15-year-old Eliot, 14-year-old Maggie, and their seven-year-old brother Finn seem able to cope with their mother's defection. Eliot makes brief sorties into the outside world to buy food and date a girl, while Finn plays Maurice Sendak comic-book games.

But soon it becomes clear that the three kids are hopelessly entrapped. They are dependent on the phonecall from the mum that never comes. At the same time, they know that once they advertise their plight they will be split up and taken into care.

Behind the play, I sense an unhealed private wound. But, far from being unrelieved gloom, the play offers a stoic tribute to sibling resilience. It also benefits hugely from breaking the 90-minute rule and offering a second act: only by charting the passage of time, and introducing new characters, does Stenham reveal the full extent of the kids' filial need and even elicit a measure of sympathy for the suicide-prone mother.

It adds to the tension that, in Jeremy Herrin's fine production, the key parts are played by three astonishing actors who look exactly the right age: Toby Regbo as the controlling Eliot, Bel Powley as the insubordinate Maggie, and Finn Bennett as the mischievous youngster.

Not since Peter Pan have I seen a play so much about the crying need for mother love. I only hope that Stenham, having exorcised her demons, one day breaks out of the jagged family circle.


Michael Billington

The GuardianTramp

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