It takes a sizable leap of faith to buy into “Sliding With Suzanne,” which demands that an audience accept a 35-year-old heroine on the skids as foster mother to her 16-year-old lover. How did such a feisty scrapper as Suzanne (Monica Dolan) ever persuade England’s social services to grant her custody of a kid, much less Luka (Bryan Dick), her barely less volatile charge? These questions shadow Judy Upton’s play, another entry in the Royal Court’s ad hoc life-is-grim sweepstakes, with the exception that this one is handed a none-too-convincing happy ending. So one intends a particular tribute to director Max Stafford-Clark in pointing out that his exemplary cast so inhabits every moment of a potentially overfamiliar script that the production sends out ripples of fresh emotion even when the specifics of the situation don’t always add up.
Stafford-Clark has long specialized in this kind of work, prompting revelatory frissons courtesy of a gift for human behavior at its most real. To that end, he is helped by a perfectly pitched ensemble that plays with empathy and feeling every note on Upton’s scale of ennui. Put another way, you may wince when Suzanne gets an overemphatically character-defining line such as, “It’s people like us nobody wants”; but you look on transfixed at Dolan’s hold over a character who is battling desperation on one hand and offers of decency on the other.
It’s Suzanne’s misfortune, of course, to not recognize the gestures of good will that come her way since she is busy, more often than not, venting steam. While Theresa (June Watson), her risotto-minded mother, clucks over an errant and fractious daughter, 17-year-old shop assistant Josh (Danny Worters) offers a sanctuary of sorts to Suzanne beneath his “Star Wars” duvet. At the same time, Luka’s violent treatment of Josh in the opening scene — hedgehog lovers will want to look away — suggests things cannot end well, which itself makes a hopeful dance at play’s conclusion seem as if it came appended to some other script.
If the arc of Upton’s play doesn’t cohere, Stafford-Clark and Co. see to its multiple grace notes, with Julian McGowan’s set shifting the action at will from, among other locations, a down-at-heels corner shop to a beach by England’s southern coast. (McGowan seems to have become the house designer for Stafford-Clark’s Out of Joint troupe, which is co-producing the nationwide tour — and, in November, on to Madrid — that follows the now-completed Royal Court stand.) Every part is well taken, from Loo Brealey as Josh’s bespectacled sister, whose own burgeoning sexual desires land her in bed with, as it were, the enemy, to Roger Frost as the map-obsessed widower with whom Suzanne’s mother embarks on a fling of her own.
Worters and Dick couldn’t be better as adolescents fighting off varying stages of anomie, each conveying a sweetness capable at any moment of going sour — which, in Luka’s case, it often has. Dolan, meanwhile, finally has the outlet for a feral energy that found no home for itself in the recent West End revival of “Hay Fever.” (This actress has notably expressive eyebrows.) Acting the small moments as tellingly as the large — life spent in a coffee bar, she decides, consists mostly of a “macchiato becoming a latte” — she cuts a vivid portrait of a woman in emotional freefall who simply won’t give up the fight and keeps a rapt audience in there rooting for her.