Royal Court Upstairs, London

Theatre review: No Quarter - I'll take the ruff, but I want some smooth

Like her latest characters, Polly Stenham is struggling to fulfill her early promise

Is Robin really worth his salt as a composer of piano music? He argues that he is, most defiantly in the final scene of No Quarter – another dysfunctional family drama by Polly Stenham who, in 2007, aged just 20, was fanfared for her Royal Court debut, That Face.

"Music is my value. Don't you get it? I'm not messing around," insists Tom Sturridge's Robin, a reclusive, screwed-up 20-something. "I see so much ugliness out there …. But making things transcends that. You can make beauty; make ships to cling to."

Raised in a country house, now habitually snorting coke in a silk dressing gown, Robin is at loggerheads with his brother. Oliver (Patrick Kennedy) is an MP in a smart suit, almost estranged, having never been their boho, boozy mother's favourite.

After Maureen Beattie's mumbling Lily dies, Robin wants to remain in her decaying mansion. Oliver is, however, determined to sell the place, employing Robin's decadent friends, twins Arlo and Scout, to lure him away into a ménage à trois.

Ultimately, Oliver rebukes Robin for not engaging with the wider world and the web, or for not campaigning against climate change, population growth, and other imminent cataclysms.

Alas, Stenham's early promise is not fulfilled here, and No Quarter is a badly made play. Veering unsteadily towards farce one minute, melodrama the next, it keeps falling flat as it ineptly drags in a string of characters. Robin and Oliver are mere mouthpieces for philosophical platitudes, ticking off a checklist of big themes borrowed from other playwrights (Noël Coward, Alexi Kaye Campbell and many more), albeit with elements that feel autobiographical.

Tom Scutt's encircling stage design is the best thing about Jeremy Herrin's premiere. The Royal Court's Theatre Upstairs is transformed into a drawing room-going-on-hippie den, lit by standard lamps, with antlers on the walls, stuffed pheasants perched on books, crocheted blankets over old armchairs, and a grand piano – although it's barely touched.

Most of the cast are more than commendable, especially Joshua James as the smiling, effete and crushingly snooty Arlo. Nonetheless, the mother's senility isn't convincingly scripted and, faced with piecemeal writing, Sturridge's delivery lacks timing. Though electrifying when his sexual switch is flicked, he's a live wire that keeps short-circuiting.

In The Silence of the Sea (Trafalgar Studios, London) – published by the Paris-born writer Vercors (aka Jean Bruller ) in 1942 – France has been invaded. A young woman has been dragged, apparently for protection, from her provincial town to her uncle's hilltop retreat – her father having stabbed a Nazi soldier and gone on the run. She clings to her beloved piano, insisting it comes with her. Then a German officer, Werner, turns up on her uncle's doorstep, requisitioning a bedroom.

Fast-rising director Simon Evans's chamber production – using a new adaptation by Anthony Weigh – is quietly riveting while being unsettlingly hard to pin down on where its sympathies lie. Penned in by the audience on a tiny, virtually bare stage, Simona Bitmaté's willowy Young Woman says not a word but just looks on with burning dark eyes. Sitting on a music stool, she mimes opening the lid of an imaginary piano, her long, pale fingers softly pressing the keys. Ghostly notes resound as she does so (courtesy of sound designer Gregory Clarke). She speaks not a word to Leo Bill's Werner. Nor does her uncle, a soft-spoken but bitter Finbar Lynch, who solely confides in us, recounting how they resisted this enemy occupation by never opening their lips.

Bill's performance is brilliantly nuanced. A gawky posh boy with an eager-beaver passion for French culture, he expresses hopes of Franco-German harmony. He seems desperately nervous and nice, jabbering away, but with a feverish eye on the young woman. Weigh's English version is strangely gripping, full of fractured sentences and vivid imagery. What a shame the talent-nurturing Donmar Trafalgar programme is to be discontinued after this season.

Lastly, the acclaimed Edinburgh Fringe show Monkey Bars is being revived at the Unicorn, London. As an increasingly adventurous children's theatre in Southwark, it's drawing in grown-up audiences with this verbatim docudrama, edited and directed by Chris Goode. The script collates interviews conducted with eight- to 10-year-olds, where they answered questions about their lives, ambitions, bugbears and worries. An adult cast, some in suits and holding a microphone, relay the youngsters' words, without acting childish or recreating the interviewees' varying accents.

I found the production slightly saccharine, as well as bitty at first. Worse, I felt the laughter generated by children's opinions, seriously expressed, was close to condescending. Yet Goode's approach ends up being thought-provoking and complex, and satirical about adults too, as a couple of "small boys" (interviewing each other) trenchantly lay into the lamentable sexualisation of young girls' clothing. They sound like a pair of old intellectuals on a park bench. Another highlight is a discussion of favourite sweets, conducted like a high-pressure, corporate job interview or an insane grilling on Dragons' Den. Very entertaining.

 

'No Quarter' (020-7565 5000) to 9 Feb; 'The Silence of the Sea' (0844 871 7632) to 2 Feb; 'Monkey Bars' (020-7645 0560) to 26 Jan

Critic's Choice

Merrily We Roll Along, Sondheim's regret-tinged comic musical about stardom and wrecked friendships, is superbly staged by Maria Friedman at the Menier Chocolate Factory, London (to 9 Mar). The Accrington Pals, Peter Whelan's portrait of Lancashire lads going off to fight in the First World War, is at Manchester's Royal Exchange (to 16 Feb). James Dacre, previously acclaimed for The Mountaintop, directs.

Arts & Entertainment
art

By opportunistic local hoping to exhibit the work

Arts & Entertainment
Leonardo DiCaprio will star in an adaptation of Michael Punke's thriller 'The Revenant'
film

Fans will be hoping the role finally wins him an Oscar

Arts & Entertainment
Cody and Paul Walker pictured in 2003.
film

Arts & Entertainment
Down to earth: Fern Britton presents 'The Big Allotment Challenge'
TV

VIDEO
Arts & Entertainment
The London Mozart Players is the longest-running chamber orchestra in the UK
musicThreatened orchestra plays on, managed by its own members
Arts & Entertainment
Seeing red: James Dean with Sal Mineo in 'Rebel without a Cause'
film

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Arts & Entertainment
TV
Arts & Entertainment
Heads up: Andy Scott's The Kelpies in Falkirk
art

What do gigantic horse heads tell us about Falkirk?

Arts & Entertainment
artGraffiti legend posts picture of work – but no one knows where it is
Arts & Entertainment
A close-up of Tom of Finland's new Finnish stamp
art

Finnish Postal Service praises the 'self irony and humour' of the drawings

Arts & Entertainment
Pierce Brosnan as James Bond in 2002's Die Another Day
film

The actor has confessed to his own insecurities

Life & Style
Green fingers: a plot in East London
TV

Allotments are the focus of a new reality show

Arts & Entertainment
Myleene Klass attends the Olivier awards 2014

Oliviers 2014Theatre stars arrive at Britain's most prestigious theatre awards
Arts & Entertainment
Stars of The Book of Mormon by Trey Parker and Matt Stone of South Park

Oliviers 2014Blockbuster picked up Best Musical and Best Actor in a Musical
Arts & Entertainment
Lesley Manville with her Olivier for Best Actress for her role in 'Ghosts'

Oliviers 2014Actress thanked director Richard Eyre for a stunning production
Arts & Entertainment
Rory Kinnear in his Olivier-winning role as Iago in Othello

Oliviers 2014Actor beat Jude Law and Tom Hiddleston to take the award
Arts & Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch is best known for this roles in Sherlock and Star Trek
TV

Arts & Entertainment
theatreAll hail the temporary venue that has shaken things up at the National Theatre
Arts & Entertainment
musicShe is candid, comic and coming our way
Arts & Entertainment
booksHer new novel is about people seeking where they belong
Arts & Entertainment
TV
Arts & Entertainment
tvGrace Dent on The Crimson Field
Arts & Entertainment
Gian Sammarco plays Adrian Mole in 'The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole'
books

Sue Townsend's much-loved character will live on
Arts & Entertainment
Kylie has helped to boost viewing figures for the talent show
TV

Kylie Minogue quits The Voice UK

Arts & Entertainment
Chiwetel Ejiofor, Favour Asikpa and Thandie Newton in 'Half of a Yellow Sun'
film

Review: Half of A Yellow Sun

Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Homelessness: Why is the supported lodgings lifeline under threat?

    Why is the supported lodgings lifeline under threat?

    Zubairi Sentongo swapped poverty in Uganda for homelessness in Britain. But a YMCA scheme connected him with a couple offering warmth and shelter
    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: When the world’s biggest shed took over Regent’s Park

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    When the world’s biggest shed took over Regent’s Park
    The pain of IVF

    The pain of IVF

    As an Italian woman vows to keep the babies from someone else’s eggs, Julian Baggini ponders how the reality of childbirth is often messier than the natural ideal
    Supersize art

    Is big better? Britain's latest super-sized art

    The Kelpies are the latest addition to a growing army of giant sculptures. But naysayers are asking what a pair of gigantic horse heads tells us about Falkirk?
    James Dean: Back on the big screen

    James Dean: Back on the big screen

    As 'Rebel without a Cause' is re-released, Geoffrey Macnab reveals how its star perfected his moody act
    Catch-22: How the cult classic was adapted for the stage

    How a cult classic was adapted for the stage

    More than half a century after it was published 'Catch-22' will make its British stage debut next week
    10 best activity books for children

    10 best activity books for children

    Keep little ones busy this bank holiday with one of these creative, educational and fun books
    Arsenal 3 West Ham United 1: Five things we learnt from the battle between the London sides

    Five things we learnt from Arsenal's win over West Ham

    Arsenal still in driving seat for Champions League spot and Carroll can make late charge into England’s World Cup squad
    Copa del Rey final: Barcelona are paying for their complacency and not even victory over Real Madrid will put things right

    Pete Jenson on the Copa del Rey final

    Barcelona are paying for their complacency and not even victory over Real Madrid will put things right
    Rafa to reign? Ten issues clay courts will serve up this season

    Rafa to reign? Ten issues clay courts will serve up this season

    With the tennis circus now rolling on to the slowest surface, Paul Newman highlights who'll be making the headlines – and why
    Exclusive: NHS faces financial disaster in 2015 as politicians urged to find radical solution

    NHS faces financial disaster in 2015

    Politicians urged to find radical solution
    Ukraine crisis: How spontaneous are the pro-Russian protests breaking out in Ukraine’s east?

    Ukraine crisis

    How spontaneous are the pro-Russian protests breaking out in Ukraine’s east?
    A History of the First World War in 100 moments: The first execution at the Tower of London for 167 years

    The first execution at the Tower of London for 167 years

    A history of the First World War in 100 moments
    Fires could turn Amazon rainforest into a desert as human activity and climate change threaten ‘lungs of the world’, says study

    New threat to the Amazon rainforest:

    Fires that scorch the ‘lungs of the Earth’
    Liverpool, Chelsea and Manchester City: And the winner of this season’s Premier League title will be...

    Who’s in box seat now? The winner of the title will be ...

    Who is in best shape to take the Premier League prize?