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.

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