Instead of a polite, gradual suspension of disbelief, Tusk Tusk starts with a shout. You are drawn in instantly, and once you’re caught, the play doesn’t let go. With just the right pace for the audience to follow but remain focused on the stage, the first scene feeds you all the information you need to know. Three children – aged 15, 14 and seven – are alone in a house they have just moved into with their mother. Some information is held back: they are waiting for a phone call, and they are upset. And if you think watching them get more and more worried and become increasingly dangerous to each other is not going to be entertaining, you’re wrong.
A compelling and well put-together play, it is in fact horribly entertaining. But it is also really funny. Unexpectedly so: after the rehearsal, the actors told me they’d been almost surprised to hear me laugh. Of course they knew the play is funny, but as the first person to see the show, I reminded them how the sinister and the humorous coexist in Tusk Tusk. This is something the Latest Theatre Company already handle extremely competently; it is not done as comic relief, which would imply a separation or a respite, but integrated in the characters’ progression through time.
Which brings us back to the plot. A kind of family Lord of the Flies, Tusk Tusk is set in the present, and I usually hate plays that try and be of our time. Here, however, everything stems from a coherent emotional force, which makes all the rest seem natural. Tusk Tusk is a testing of strength, as the continual increase of pressure on the three main characters demands more and more from them. But this is not Pinter; the dramatic engine does not feel arbitrary and there is nothing gratuitous about violence and desperation. Instead, Polly Stenham – the author – manages to create a fluid continuum where shared tenderness and shared tension do not grate.
This is something the production needs to get right, as director Andra Catincescu stressed in her post-rehearsal remarks. To make the play happen, she feels it is vitally important for the cast to connect each line with the next rather than recite them. An obvious thing to do, perhaps, but it was interesting to observe how conscientiously they were putting together the performance. And by getting her actors to speak each line and choose each of their movements, she is creating a whole that feels more natural as it becomes more aesthetic.
Fancy paradoxes aside, I felt the cast were doing a fine job already, inhabiting their characters so strongly that I was slightly disturbed when they went back to being real people. Thomas McNulty simply plays with complete abandon, as benefits the seven-year-old everyone know thinks he is – idem with Catherine Rose Ellis, who is so upper-middle-class and idiotic (though kind) it will drive you mad. As actors, Gianni Laino and Emily Saddler have to put in more nuanced performances: they play the two teenage siblings who combine authority and vulnerability. Jila Bahri and Ghassan Al-Sammari both play outsiders, but have depth even though they are chiefly foils for the three siblings.
This is where it gets exciting: even before the costumes, set and light, I thoroughly enjoyed the performance. Theatre as it should be; an engaging, energetic occasion. There is room for excellence: will the Latest Theatre Company pull it off? The play itself won’t let them down, since the final scene and the ending are brilliant. As one of the few contemporary plays from DST this season, it is an exciting event – and it is good to know that plays of this quality is still being written (Tusk Tusk was premiered in 2009, its author was 23). I was impressed by the rehearsals, and think the final product could be among the best performances of this year. To find out, head to the Assembly Rooms for shows at 7.30pm on Thursday, Friday and Saturday, 9–11th of June.