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USING MEDIA FOR TEACHING ENGLISH: LITERATURE: Tusk, Tusk by Polly Stenham


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Polly Stenham
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Polly Stenham’s first play, That Face, was a deliriously funny black comedy about a monstrously irresponsible mother and her long-suffering children. It won universal acclaim and is currently being turned into a film. Can she repeat the success, is she a permanent addition to the scene, or will she suffer from that difficult second album/novel/play syndrome? You have around about 25 or 30 years to write your first (actually Stenham did it in 19), but then only another year or so for the second.

For the first 30 minutes or so of Tusk Tusk, things certainly seem a little underpowered, and there is markedly less enjoyably nervous laughter than there was in That Face. And, once again, you have a very similar theme of maternal irresponsibility and neglected children, the great difference here being that the mother in question is absent throughout the play.

There are three children alone in a London flat: Eliot, only eight days away from his 16th birthday, Maggie, fourteen, and Finn, 7. They squabble and fight, sleep a lot, eat terrible food, let the flat slowly decay into a pigsty around them, and grow more and more unhappy. A perfect setup for a prurient Channel 4 fly-on-the-wall documentary, really. And a perfect lesson in how adolescents, even those on the cusp of nominal adulthood, are still, in many ways, children; and though it’s best not to tell them, still need looking after by a genuine adult or two.

And therein lies the problem. The children’s father died of cancer a few years ago, and their mother is mysteriously missing. She’s gone Awol before, but not for this long. But she will ring them, soon. They know she will. It’s just a matter of time. Then it will be all right.

It’s from this simple story line that Polly Stenham builds such terrific dramatic tension and unbearable poignancy. Tusk Tusk depends upon one of the most universal, perhaps the most universal primal emotion of all, more so even than l ove or hate: the child’s fear of losing its mother. We’ve all been there, because we’ve all been children.

More in TimesOnline of April 12, 2009


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