“I would punch a baby for a cigarette”
During Dominic Cooke’s reign, the Royal Court has done an excellent job in nurturing a generation of new young female playwrights and Polly Stenham surely has to be considered as one of the breakout successes from this cohort, managing to maintain an air of great anticipation alongside a unhurried workrate. Her third play No Quarter, for the Royal Court as with That Face and Tusk Tusk, occupies similar territory as her earlier work, in the chronicling of dysfunction in families of the more privileged classes, but it could be said it is with diminishing returns.
24-year-old music school dropout Robin has lost himself in a haze of drink and drugs but when he returns to the dilapidated manor house that is his family home, it is to the suffocatingly intense embrace of his dementia-stricken mother who wants his help to ease her way into death. But when he finds that the home he thought he would inherit has actually been sold from under him to developers, his self-destructive instincts kick in and the night of her wake sees him attract an assorted crowd for a wild party to end all parties, anything to avoid confronting the enduring malaise that weighs him down.
Robin is hardly the most likeable character to begin with, but Tom Sturridge’s performance is not one that helped to endear him to me at all. Full of nervous tics and unpredictable energy, it came across as an overly studied interpretation which never settled into any kind of naturalism and so always felt like deliberate (over-)acting to me. This home-schooled, mother-obsessed figure is full of criticism and opinion about the world around him yet it is all theoretical, none of it earned through any real life experience of merit and so it is hard to take any of his assertions with any real seriousness. And as with Joshua James and Zoe Boyle’s pretentious twins sent to collect Robin and deliver him to his older brother, the difficulties in how to play self-indulgent characters and somehow make them engaging feels beyond the gifts of this writer and this ensemble. The drink and drug fuelled antics we are compelled to witness offer some small entertainment but precious little insight into character or motivation.
And Jeremy Herrin’s production doesn’t quite have the necessary verve and energy to carry No Quarter through its weaker spots. The extended first act runs on too long though Maureen Beattie is excellent as the manipulative mother, decaying in Tom Scutt’s remarkably detailed design of a country house filled to the rafters with hoarded trinkets. Taron Egerton and Alexa Davis as the ex-squaddie now-drug dealer and teenage neighbour respectively both flag up signs of interest in trying desperately to make sense of their characters’ overwhelming (yet almost inexplicable) crushes on Robin, but it is Patrick Kennedy’s older brother, a new MP, who finally makes the most sense.
He is able to disabuse Robin, finally, of the nonsense with which their mother has filled his head as the play subtly shifts into a critique of the baby-boomers (truly one of the theatrical trends of the moment, qv Old Money, Love Love Love, Last of the Haussmans…) but this is almost incidental in the grander scheme of familial betrayal and symptomatic of Stenham ultimately returning to what she knows best, no matter how well-trodden that ground is. This is far from a bad play though, just one filled with the sense that the playwright could afford to stretch her wings a little further afield to deconstruct and explore some other facet of contemporary life to the same meticulous degree.