TUSK TUSK ★★★
By Polly Stenham, St Martins Youth Theatre, South Yarra, until July 7
British wunderkind Polly Stenham’s second play Tusk Tusk is a manifest excruciation. It inspires some astonishing acting from a young cast playing characters grappling with the kind of anxiety no one would wish upon any child.
Three siblings – the eldest teen, Eliot (Ben Walter), his 14-year-old sister Maggie (Markella Kavenagh) and seven-year-old Finn (Liam Smith/Sol Feldman) – are home alone in their new house in London. On the day after their arrival, with unpacked boxes littering the living room, their mother (and only surviving parent) has disappeared.
Markella Kavenagh and Ben Walter in Tusk Tusk.Credit:Holly Craig
Conflict erupts as the waiting game proceeds from affectionately drawn teasing and sibling rivalry into something bleaker as it becomes clear Mummy isn’t coming back.
Walter and Kavenagh are brilliant, etching intimate character studies that show – with an aching vividness impossible to dispel from the mind – how adolescents can take up socially influenced ideas of adulthood under stress.
Burdened with keeping the family together, Walter’s Eliot transforms from puerile but good-natured elder brother into hideous, patriarchal protector.
Sol Feldman in Tusk Tusk.Credit:Holly Craig
Kavenagh’s tenacious Maggie challenges and humiliates him, her pragmatic approach to an increasingly desperate situation swelling into open rebellion in the face of a problem they’re totally unequipped to cope with.
Smith played their kid brother, on the night I attended, with an accusing vulnerability. Lucy Ansell as Eliot’s girlfriend is a luminous if one-noted presence.
Ultimately, though, this is a lopsided work. An interminable second half squishes in late melodrama in the form of the arrival of the mother’s posh friends (Glenn van Oosterom and Jayne-Louise O’Connell), along with hasty plot twists and class caricature of an unedifying kind.
Director Ruby Rees can do little to remedy that, but she does help craft impressive performances from her young actors, whose futures are surely very bright.
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