Talent issue - the playwright: Polly Stenham

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The Independent Culture

Polly Stenham was very nearly lost to the theatre. The winner of this year's Evening Standard award for Most Promising Playwright had wanted to write novels since the age of seven but the only course she could find was for drama. "So it's a fluke I ended up being associated with theatre."

There's nothing flukey about her talent though. When Stenham's first play, That Face, opened in the Royal Court's Theatre Upstairs in April, it was greeted by one critic as "the most astonishing debut in more than 30 years". Set in a dysfunctional upper-middle-class family, it starred Lindsay Duncan as the alcoholic mother of an inappropriately adored son and a neglected daughter who whiles away the hours at boarding school in bullying and bitchiness.

That Face was hailed as The Vortex for the iPod generation and as with so many debuts, it contains more than a kernel of autobiographical truth. Stenham was brought up by her father, the late Unilever tycoon Anthony "Cob" Stenham, and sent away to board at Wycombe Abbey and Rugby where she gained three A-grade A-Levels. She then worked as a backstage skivvy at the Arcola before enrolling on the Royal Court's young writers programme, where she wrote That Face in a four-month burst of creativity, aged 19. She followed it with a darkly witty skit on "Hotel California", which was performed at the Latitude festival as part of a series of plays based on pop songs.

For now, she's concentrating on the difficult second play for the Royal Court. Meanwhile the success of That Face rumbles on: a revival in the main house is slated for next season and last month Stenham was awarded 15,000 by the UK Film Council to adapt it for the big screen. All of which makes the elfin 21-year-old a face to remember in 2008

Portrait by Philip Sinden

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