Royal Court Theatre, London SW1
Opened 5 April, 2011

I have long been fond of playwright Simon Stephens’ skill in creating unremittingly bleak portraits of ordinary people and then right at the end offering a glimmer of hope… not of artificial redemption, but just the faint prospect that characters may stop so compulsively screwing up their own and each other’s lives. Wastwater has given me a new experience: the bleakness without the hope. I still admire the work, it still speaks to me, but it does not sing.
The publicity material describes the play as an “elliptical triptych”: a beautiful phrase and an accurate one. We see three scenes, each 30-35 minutes long, each self-contained although oblique, incidental links are made between the characters. In the first, Harry (Tom Sturridge, who made such a powerful début in Stephens’ Punk Rock) is taking leave of his foster-mother Frieda (Linda Bassett) before he flies to Vancouver, to some unspecified “centre”; he apparently has a job there, but seems so unsocialised that he could as easily be an inmate. In the second, Mark (Paul Ready) and Lisa (Jo McInnes) are meeting in a hotel room for an illicit sexual tryst; Lisa’s increasing revelations about drugs, sex and violence shock Mark but do not altogether repel him. In the third, Sian (Amanda Hale) plays thoroughly unsettling power games with Jonathan (Angus Wright) in a disused warehouse or sub-garage before a people-trafficking transaction takes place; it does not matter whether the motive is sexual or not, the commodification of the human consignment is the salient point. This provides the ending in which Stephens may intend his usual chink of hope but I can espy none.
The scenes seem to be played out simultaneously at disparate locations near Heathrow’s Terminal 5: at roughly the same points in each scene, we hear the sound of jets overhead and the lights momentarily dim. (I am disappointed and perplexed to find that the script in fact identifies the first scene as taking place two days later than the other two.) Director Katie Mitchell turns in one of her rigorously unshowy productions. Wastwater is the deepest lake in Britain, and nowhere near Heathrow; it is apparently a favoured spot for dumping corpses. That is the sense I take away from this increasing series of scenes of disconnection and awkwardness escalating to unpleasantness then repulsion: that the deeper one goes, the darker it gets, and there is nothing to find but bodies.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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