Review: Tusk Tusk

by Jane

Graduating from the Drama School at Flinders University at the end of 2010, for her final student piece director Nescha Jelk has directed Polly Stenham’s Tusk Tusk in an outstanding achievement.

The night Max wore his wolf suit and made mischief of one kind, and another, his mother called him ‘WILD THING!’ and Max said ‘I’LL EAT YOU UP!’ so he was sent to bed without eating anything.

The summer day after the family moves into their new London flat, siblings Elliot (Andrew Thomas) – fifteen, Maggie (Alyssa Mason) – fourteen, and Finn (Walter Buckley) – seven, find themselves alone, again, surrounded by boxes, and a  £70 train-ride from their old home and friends.  Mum has left, they have only the money they found in boxes, and they have no choice but to turn off the lights, turn down the noise, turn on the phones, and wait to know she will come back for them, and everything will be okay.

As Mason alternatively bounces with energy, then lies with lethargy, Maggie almost bursts with insatiable energy until she does burst, and collapse.  Maggie feels the loss of her mother more acutely than her bothers: where Elliot escapes, and Finn finds his parents in his siblings, Maggie must stay and be the “adult.”  Mason shows the jubilance, and mainly the weight, that being alone and scared – scared of what will happen if mum doesn’t return, and scared of what will happen if she does – and fourteen does.

The fallible Elliot in some ways wishes he could be the man of the house, but at fifteen he is still a child. Thomas’ balance between man (he is almost sixteen after all), and child, between power and fear, is clear.

That very night in Max’s room a forest grew, and grew, and grew, until his ceiling hung with vines and the walls became the world all around and an ocean tumbled by with a private boat for Max and he sailed off through night and day and in and out of weeks and almost over a year to where the wild things are.

Elliot and Maggie frequently take actions which are unlikable: as they barter and bargain, as they spend the money on frivolous items and junk food, as they torture each other, as they leave siblings without tale as to when they’ll return, as they tease the man up stairs.   Yet, it important that, while the characters may be unlikable, it is always in passing.  They make the wrong choices, they screw up, but Jelk and her cast always ensure that the audience can understand, and forgive.

While both Thomas and Mason run a bit old for their characters, what is perhaps lost in a naivety and youth which could make the piece the more powerful, the pair still embrace the age of their characters, and what is brought is an assuredness in character and presence, and a model consistency in accents.

As the third child, when he’s not being distracted by waving and giggling relatives in the audience, young Buckley is assured and strong in the role of Finn, without ever loosing sight of the most important thing: being a child.   As Finn plays the role of Sendak’s Max, as he skelters around, as he’s punished, Buckley embraces the character and the moment on stage.

And when he came to the place where the wild things are they roared their terrible roars and gnashed their terrible teeth and rolled their terrible eyes and showed their terrible claws – till Max said “BE STILL!” and tamed them with a magic trick of staring into their yellow eyes without blinking once and they were frightened and called him the most wild thing of all and made him king of all wild things.

In the face of abandonment, and fear, this is how the children act out: perhaps, in the past, when it has only been a few of days alone, a few days of acting out – of roars and teeth and eyes and claws – doesn’t matter much.  Their mother will come home, she will sort it out, and everything will be okay.  But as the days creep closer to a week, and past a week, and the actions become more insolent, and the wild things come out, Jelk and Stenham have balanced increasingly obnoxious behaviour with increased concern – concern in the characters and concern for the characters.

“And now,” cried Max, “let the wild rumpus start!”

In designers Myf Cadwallader and Benjamin Gallbraith’s London apartment, the piles of boxes extend up and around the set in all directions.  These are the boxes of a life left behind, and of a mother gone.  They become, perhaps more importantly, a table and chairs, a hiding place, a climbing frame, a castle.  The world of the apartment only looks out onto a brick wall and hanging pot-plant, and lighting is simple, a means to mark the days from the nights.

As scenes change, the children’s own Max (Lochlin Maybury) brings in a blanket or a light, and helps with the gradual destruction of the space as it becomes further separated from a place of the adult world to a world of the children.  This take over occurs in the foyer, too: before the show, a few piles of boxes, and when the audience emerge in the interval balloons and streamers and a touch more destruction has been added.


At the open of act two, Finn runs around the stage, and with the help of Max in his wolf suit, draws on walls and runs amuck.  In a lovely touch, Buckley and Maybury share their bow.

“Now stop!” Max said and sent the wild things off to bed without any supper.

At just 23, Stenham is the first playwright my age that has hit into the mainstream.  The result in her second text, Tusk Tusk, is a beautiful play, which, while it speaks of its seven-, fourteen-, and fifteen-year-old characters, it is in many ways speaks of me and people my age.   Stenham has an acute appreciation of a deeply layered text, abound with both layers of character and plot, and layers of reference to popular culture, and, in a play about childhood references to elements of Stenham’s – and my own – childhood.

It is curious, these references I link closely to my childhood – of Where The Wild Things Are (1963), of Nellie The Elephant (1956), of Enid Blyton (writing from 1922 – 1968), of Bambi (1942) – which perhaps shouldn’t be links to my childhood at all.  More likely, they are all things of my parent’s childhood, and when they grew up they passed it on to me.  Or, with the case of Nellie The Elephant, their peers grew up and they made a cartoon series which then passed on to us.

Because no-one’s life is as simple as a survey of what was the popular culture of the year.  Our lives are a pastiche of influences: of the new, and of generations of material, shared down and across.  The true reflection of my generation can only come from my generation, because we were where the unique confluence of factors came together to influence our childhoods.  Unless you grew up through it, I don’t think anyone can understand what that means, no matter what generation we are talking about.

And Max the king of all wild things was lonely and wanted to be where someone loved him best of all.

It is unexpectedly wonderful to watch a play about a situation far removed from my own, where three middle-class British kids are abandoned by their bi-polar mother, and yet still feel this absolute connection to the text.  In the same way I might be drawn to a play through it’s inexplicable and overarching Australianness in a play which isn’t about being Australian at all, I have found myself drawn to Stenham through Tusk Tusk’s inexplicable and overarching relationship to my childhood, in a play which isn’t about my childhood at all.


And beyond the connection I felt to the script because of this, and a connection that comes from modern work – it feels like something that was written in the past few years, again, without being expressly so – Stenham’s play is intense and powerful and a delight.  Working from a strong base, Jelk has brought out all of this power into the production and her performers.  She seems to bring to the table an acute understanding of the interaction between text and performance, and clearly has a good eye for text to be the first to bring this script to Adelaide.


Then all around from far across the world he smelled good things to eat so he gave up being king of where the wild things are.


This was a play of firsts for me: my first time seeing any of the cast or designers, my first play directed by Jelk, my first play written by Stenham, my first Flinders Uni piece.  It’s exciting to have so many firsts at once, to have them be pulled off so fantastically, and to know I’m (hopefully) going to get to see more by everyone involved.

In particular, Stenham’s first play That Face is being presented by in September, and next year I will be doing some work at Flinders with AusStage – 2011 is going to be a good year.

But the wild things cried, “Oh please don’t go – we’ll eat you up – we love you so!” and Max said, “No!” The wild things roared their terrible roars and gnashed their terrible teeth and rolled their terrible eyes and showed their terrible claws but Max stepped into his private boat and waved good-bye and sailed back over a year and in and out of weeks and through a day and into the night of his very own room where he found his supper waiting for him – and it was still hot.

Flinders University Drama Centre in collaboration with Adelaide College of the Arts presents Tusk Tusk by Polly Stenham.  Directed by Nescha Jelk, designed by Ben Gallbraith and Myf Cadwallader, sound design by Klayton Stainer.  With Andrew Thomas, Walter Buckley, Alyssa Mason, Lauren Brumby, Angus Henderson, Holly Langridge, and Lochlin Maybury. At the Matthew Flinders Theatre.  Season closed.