Zeitgeist playwright Polly Stenham is back at the Royal Court with her much anticipated third play No Quarter and with it returns her signature ferocious energy in a chaotically alive thriller that whips the small Jerwood Theatre Upstairs into a cyclone of destruction.
It’s an unexpected turn of events following an emotional first act that sees Tom Sturridge’s Robin struggle with the act of helping his mother take very final action against her onset of dementia.
Holed up in the room where Robin spent much of his childhood, Maureen Beattie’s brief appearance in the play offers a glimpse into the harrowing effects of losing your mind; bouts of anger interspersed with a series of tender encounters between the pair encapsulating their maternal love affair as she momentarily loses her mad woman in the attic façade to dance with her son, standing on his feet for support.
But when act two begins, Robin’s beloved mother is gone and prescription drugs have been replaced with cocaine. Their much-idealised manor – depicted by Tom Scutt’s surprisingly spacious dilapidated glamour set; packed with taxidermy, Chesterfield sofas and antique books – has been turned into a squat with Robin refusing to vacate his recently sold family home.
While his newly picked up drug dealer is happy to believe he will get paid for his various powders and pills off the back of this seemingly privileged backdrop, the arrival of his friends – a pair of oversexed eccentric twins straight out of Donna Tart’s The Secret History – reveals some unfortunate truths and sparks an evening of embittered debauchery where normality is left behind as a box of opulent costumes transforms each and every one of them into ethereal beings. Of course the four grams of MDMA with which Robin spikes their drinks helps too.
With mythology and fables running through its centre, this tale of one man protecting his land has unmistakable overtones of Jerusalem about it; only No Quarter is about people who say ‘yikes’ and ‘brillo’ without a touch of irony, and a man whose upbringing with “badgers and books” has severely underequipped him for the real world.
Robin’s older brother Oliver (Patrick Kennedy), who has left behind the life of a “landed gypsy” to become an MP in Croydon, damaged ex-soldier Tommy (Taron Egerton) and two local girls Coby (Alexa Davies) and Esme (Jenny Rainsford) keep one foot of No Quarter firmly planted in reality, providing the play with brief inputs of the real world where people work for a living and wear jeans and jumpers. But the sparks really fly in Stenham’s work with her electric portrayal of the characters who are unlike anyone you’ve – well, I’ve – ever met in real life.
Zoe Boyle and Joshua James are arresting as the incestuous twins who leave a bitter taste with their confident sense of entitlement and bulging money clip, but it is Sturridge as the boy who gets weepy at stags and just wants to play in the forest with crossbows who ignites the fire that director Jeremy Herrin expertly keeps simmering with tension until its inevitable explosion.
Sturridge’s vivacious performance as the selfishly indulgent Robin reaches a tipping point when he waves a lit firework around the audience and for one moment you’re not sure whether it has all gone too far and this is real. But, as Stenham shows, when Peter Pan learns he has to grow up, the results can be frightening.