Tusk Tusk, written by English playwriting prodigy Polly Stenham, gives young actors a chance to portray the sharp realities of children in the system. The play captures a complex web of familial relationships against a backdrop of intense classism, providing an urgent and relevant insight into children trying to be adults.
Centering around three siblings, the fifteen year old eldest Eliot (Ben Walter), his fourteen year old sister Maggie (Markella Kavenagh) and their seven year old brother Finn (Liam Smith/Sol Feldman), the play follows the three as they navigate what to do, alone in their London apartment once they realise their mother has disappeared, again, maybe this time for good.
Kavenagh plays Maggie with reckless abandon, leaving everything out on the stage as she feels every emotion under the sun. Fearful of being left alone, furious at her brother for his thoughtless spending, and ultimately desperate for escape and rescue, Maggie is the adult in a world without supervision. Kavenagh dances between reliance and independence, and the tension between her and Walter’s Eliot is constantly pulled taught. Walter creates such an affable and boisterous teen from the outset, that it is desperately upsetting to watch as Eliot transforms from this loveable older brother to a cruel imitation of the man he might one day become.
The supporting characters of Finn and Cassie (Eliot’s crush played by Lucy Ansell), are necessary injections of clarity and pause into a very intense brother-sister dynamic. Whilst Feldman leaves something to be desired in his performance, Ansell stands her ground amongst the mayhem. She moves from charmed to vulnerable, ultimately proving that Cassie is a survivor in a situation not so different from that inside the chaotic flat.
Directed by Ruby Rees, the production makes excellent use of pace, with lightning fast banter during sibling squabbles dissolving quickly into hideous silences that stretch on into the night. Using a traverse stage, Rees allows the actors to play in a more wholistic space, although as the door, basement entrance and bed are all on one side of the stage, I wonder how much of the action I would have missed if I had been seated on the other side.
Ultimately what is so disarming about this play is its focus on young people. The entrance of two older and somewhat two dimensional characters (Glenn van Oosterom and Jayne-Louise O’Connell) in act two, serve as a contrast against the incredible depth of the siblings we have just been watching. As the classic line ‘the theatre is dying’ continues to circulate, and larger companies continue to rely on tried and true classics to fill their seasons, this production provides a refreshing breather. Written by a young playwright, performed by young actors and conceptualised by young creatives, the audience is notably young. Perhaps literary directors would do well to see this performance and allow it to inform their future programming, as its success and dynamism as a piece of art indicates the necessity for young voices in the theatre.
Tusk Tusk is a mammoth undertaking and a demonstration of fine acting and direction, no doubt firmly indicative of the bright futures for the young people involved.
Patalog Theatre’s production of Tusk Tusk runs from 25 June – 7 July at St Martins Arts Centre.