Review: No Quarter, Royal Court
Polly Stenham is an extraordinary talent; a writer with natural flair and the intelligence to keep it anchored. That doesn’t prevent No Quarter, the third of what has grown into a trilogy about familial dysfunction, from dragging, but it goes some way to absolving its lags. In other hands, this would be interminable, but with Stenham’s peppery verve, it survives some woozy plotting as a play of moments, if not momentum.
Basically, Stenham gives us episodes, each rounded off and cauterized before the next one starts. The first finds a dementia-sufferer and her youngest son, Robin, holed up in their dusty, ramshackle country house, crowded with assorted heirlooms and taxidermied knick-knacks. Quietly – rather bravely, in fact – Stenham reveals the scene to be an assisted suicide. By the time you realise what’s going on – that those pills aren’t merely prescription – it’s already too late.
It’s a gorgeous, tender opening, stagnant with melancholy and punctuated by the ticks of a grandfather clock. It could happily (or, rather, unhappily) have played out in real-time, but Stenham lets the drugs kick in and, having killed off a source of dramatic potential, goes seeking another.
From here, No Quarter proves a bunnyhopper of a play. You can sense Stenham running along behind, spark plugs in hand, trying anything to get its engine going.
First, she tries the house itself, which is to be sold to some uncaring real estate developer. Not a lot Robin can do there, despite squatting the place in a grandly romantic and unrealistically futile gesture. Next she turns to a trunk of locked away treasure, but – open sesame – it’s naught but a white elephant. There are vague threads about Robin’s real father that flap about unresolved. Eventually, inevitably, lazily, she resorts to drink, drugs and disarray. Her supporting characters have the same glint of trial and error. Stenham introduces an ex-squaddie dealer claiming outstanding debts, a pair of effete, caustic twins and a grounded trainee policewoman, hoping each will complete the circuit. None quite does.
However, as the actor Danny Lee Winter remarked on Twitter, you can teach structure and dramaturgy, but not tone and panache, and this is why Stenham – still only 26, remember – remains such an exciting prospect.
There are those that would have her move away from the maladjusted middle-classes. Would they have urged Pinter out of the East End? Besides, it seems to me that No Quarter completes a conversation about parenthood; the pandering of That Face and the abandonment of Tusk Tusk reach their inevitable apotheosis in No Quarter’s orphanage. A parent’s death marks the end of childhood and, when it arrives, Robin is ill-equipped and uninterested.
He’s a rather fascinating, bravura character, who clearly owes a debt to Jerusalem’s Johnny ‘Rooster’ Byron. Barefoot and effortfully bohemian, Tom Sturridge roams around his lair like a bird with a broken wing, spouting anachronistic exclamations absorbed from the books of his isolated, home-schooled childhood. He longs for wildness, unconstrained by contemporary life and capitalism, for the anarchy of nature and also for some vague mysticism; animals and death, always coupled with the possibility of resurrection, recur in his speech. He is a home-counties Mowgli, a pilled-up Peter Pan and Stenham has imbued him with a heavy sense of personal history. “What you think is exciting about him,” says his robust childhood friend, “is actually damage.” Stenham lets you see every crack in his psyche.
That’s crucial; Robin is no rabble-rousing leader of men, but a wilted antihero. Stenham sees through him and allows us to as well, so that all his brooding charisma is undercut by his detachment from reality. The play’s political thrust comes in the clash between Robin and his older half-brother Oliver, a Labour MP, who urges him to grow up and engage rather than rejecting the world outright. Without engagement, Stenham concludes, there can be no change and yet engagement entails acceptance, compromise and complicity. It’s a conclusion laced with defeat and despondency.
Jeremy Herrin’s production does all it can to compensate for the wayward, stilted structure and his cast – unanimously superb – make consistently interesting choices. A mannerism here, an inverted tone there – it goes a long way to sustaining interest. Maureen Beattie is crushingly delicate as Lily, Joshua James makes a brilliant spoilt swot as Arlo and Sturridge, warped and brittle and unpredictable, is utterly, introvertedly watchable – he’s an actor that keeps you guessing, but totally hooks you in.
Oh, and Tom Scutt’s set is great, but I can’t say too much about that as my girlfriend was his associate. Read other people saying nice things about it.
Photograph: Johan Persson