Tusk Tusk

Galway Youth Theatre presentes Polly Stenham's 'Tusk tusk'. Photo: Jane Talbot

Galway Youth Theatre presentes Polly Stenham's 'Tusk tusk'. Photo: Jane Talbot

Since her 2007 debut, Polly Stenham has become one of the most talked-about young dramatists in Britain. But, as so often happens with female writers, much of that attention has focussed on her life rather than her work – so we know much more about her looks, her sexuality, and her relationship with her parents than we do about her writing.

She is certainly an interesting personality, and her achievement in having her first play, That Face, staged when she was only 20 is impressive. But because of the excessive focus on who she is, she hasn’t received the critical attention that her work deserves: That Face and Tusk Tusk are impressive plays in their own right, regardless of the youth and private life of their author.

If Stenham’s youth tends to get in the way of the critical appraisal of her work, that’s a problem that faces many young people in theatre. But it hasn’t often troubled Galway Youth Theatre, a group that often meets and occasionally exceeds the standards set by professional companies locally – so that there’s rarely a need to qualify praise of their output by referring to the inexperience of the actors. Their production of Stenham’s second play, Tusk Tusk, showcases many of their strengths – though it doesn’t quite reach the standards that they usually meet.

As with That Face, Tusk Tusk focuses on a once well-off family who are experiencing a serious emotional crisis. At the heart of the play, we have three siblings: fifteen-year-old Elliot (Joe Shearer), fourteen-year-old Maggie (Josie Carlin), and seven-year-old Finn (Liam Loewen). The three have recently moved into a new home somewhere in London, but have been abandoned by their mother who, we learn, has a history of severe depression.

Her disappearance gives rise to a situation with obvious dramatic potential. On the one hand, the freedom from parental supervision allows the characters to indulge themselves: to play music late into the night, to drink plenty of alcohol, to live on a diet of crisps and Chinese take-away. But on the other, they’re faced with the adult responsibilities of keeping themselves alive – and of staying together. The elder siblings know that if their mother’s disappearance is discovered by the authorities, they’ll be put into care, and therefore will be separated from each other. In an Irish context, there’s something very haunting about the actors’ portrait of three young people who choose to be homeless and hungry rather than being placed into the care of the state.

GYT presents 'Tusk-Tusk'. Photo: Jane TalbotThe staging decisions by director Andrew Flynn nicely draw out some of these themes and resonances – but they also give rise to problems. In particular, there is some unnecessary confusion about the setting of the play. We’re told that the action is set in London, yet almost of the actors speak in their own Irish accents. It might be possible for us to imagine that the three kids are Irish: Stenham makes clear that they aren’t from London, and they speak frequently about going home to an unidentified location elsewhere in Britain. And it might even be possible for the audiences to imagine that although the actors are speaking in their own accents, we are meant to imagine them as English. But that kind of imaginative leap is made impossible due to inconsistent direction. For instance, Elliot brings home a local girl who speaks about the difficulties of living in such a deprived area, but delivers her lines in an Irish accent – yet on another occasion the actor playing a disgruntled neighbour shouts his lines from offstage in a cockney accent. So the relationship between setting and accent doesn’t seem fully thought through, and as a result audiences are likely to leave the production wondering why the actors didn’t try to speak in English accents. That doesn’t seem entirely fair to them.

That problem is partially addressed by the site-specific setting, however. The audience gathers in Galway’s Bar 8, and are led to a vacant city centre apartment near the city’s docks. In the corner of the apartment’s living room, there is a row of stools and seats – enough space for about 15 people. So we’re placed very close to the action: close enough to touch the performers – and close enough to feel almost constantly the desire to intervene: to pick up the youngest actor when he falls (deliberately) from the couch to the floor, or to cover his ears when Maggie tells Elliot that instead of chasing girls he should just "have a wank".

The ultimate impact of that proximity is to intensify the audience’s awareness of the excesses of the young characters – and to make us consider our own responses and responsibilities. If we feel the need to disapprove of the characters or to impose order upon their lives – and we almost certainly will – then we’ve become the very thing that they fear more than anything else: adults who think they know best.

Patrick Lonergan teaches at NUI Galway.

  • Review
  • Theatre

Tusk Tusk by Polly Stenham

12 - 24 July, 2010

Produced by Galway Youth Theatre
In a city-centre apartment, Galway

Directed by Andrew Flynn

Costumes by Petra Breathnach

With: Josie Carlin, Joe Shearer, Liam Loewen, Meabh Ni Chulainn, Barry Hopkins, Conor O’Grady, Orla O’Brien, Amanda Gareis

Presented as part of Galway Arts Festival 2010