I was glad when my schedule finally yielded a free day suitable to see Wastwater (luckily only one day before it closed) as I had very much enjoyed my introduction to the Royal Court, The Heretic, and was keen to see if the much lauded Simon Stephens was able to give an equally good showing himself. The quality seemed assured on paper. Drawn in by the likes of Angus Wright (Design for Living - Best Show of 2010) who, let’s not forget, I named Outstanding Supporting Performer of 2010 in the Tipsy Hippo Theatre Awards and Tom Sturridge (star of one of my favourite pieces of filmmaking, The Boat That Rocked) I was expecting a superb hour and a half. Everything was looking good for Wastwater. Perhaps that was part of the problem, though the somewhat anti-climactic and deflating experience must also have been caused by internal factors as well.
The central image of the play is taken from the lake of Wastwater, the deepest lake in England situated in the western part of the Lake District. The idea is that through the three individual and separate scenes we are shown the deep, dark, shadowy parts of our human nature in what is an ordinary and thriving area, namely the area surrounding Heathrow airport in London. The triptych catches three couples on the verge of making a decision that will change and define their lives from there on out and none of these decisions are easy ones to make. It’s only in the final scene that the characters in each are neatly woven together and are shown to be connected to one another, though this has very little relevance to the play if any at all.
The first thing that struck me about the play was the marvelous stage design from Lizzie Clachan. Three difference scenes, three different settings, three completely different sets, each wonderfully characterised and designed and each set change completed in a remarkably short space of time. The cluttered opening in the conservatory of a middle-aged woman’s house was beautifully arranged with careful attention to detail, including the wet exterior from the often mentioned rain. The shift from this to the utterly opposite hotel room took me by surprise. Suddenly there was more space, clean, sheer walls as well as a computer, a television and a double bed. As if that wasn’t enough it all made way again for an abandoned warehouse, complete with suspicious puddles and electrical cables. The sets cannot be faulted, only praised.
Similar claims can be made about the acting. From the very first moment, the deep levels of characterization in all the characters was made abundantly clear with Tom Sturridge’s troubled Harry waiting on the doorstep smoking. It started well and just became better and better as each couple came on. Linda Bassett offered an unnervingly realistic performance of a worrying foster mum caught in the moment of goodbyes, while Paul Ready was a fantastically nervy contrast to the assured and confident trough of hidden desire that was Jo McInnes. Topping the show off with Amanda Hale and Angus Wright is always bound to be good and the strength of performance that Wright can be relied on for was matched by the brutality in Hale’s almost demonic Sian.
Katie Mitchell’s hand in this cannot be denied. She is one of the best directors on the circuit at the moment and the unity shown by the cast here is a demonstration of the effort she puts in to crafting every performance, making it the best it can be, the most suited for the show as she sees it as a whole. Her contribution is perhaps the main reason the practical parts of this show are so well constructed. If she had had a better script to work with it could have been magnificent.
The script, however, is the spanner in the works. There are moments where it is constructed well, the dynamics between the characters are all good and the characters themselves are worth watching and yield many interesting and humorous remarks and features, the most profound being those from Harry in the opening gambit, but the problem is that they’re a bit empty when put together. Having no plot connecting the scenes it falls on a unifying theme to tie them all together and give the audience something to leave with. Wastwater failed to do this. The poignancy was a bit shallow and predictable and the links of the planes flying overhead and the rain that stops and acts as a thread denoting what time things are happening in relation to each other are all good effects but don't seem to be used to the effect that they could be. It’s all very well showing us the various depths, shadows and the like we human beings are full of but, by and large, most people in the audience will already be aware of this and we were offered no extrapolation on it. No ideas of what to do, or even what not to do, no reason for things being the way they are, nothing at all. It’s like showing a baker a bun and looking at him as if he’s going to have an epiphany. It’s not enough.
All in all, it failed to grab my attention and engage me at any point throughout and when I left I was disappointed. ‘Was that it?’ was the question in my mind, ‘what was the point of all that?’ Perhaps I was expecting too much from the play, perhaps Simon Stephens was expecting too much from the audience, it’s certainly undeniable that the acting was top class and the set design superb, but in the end it was all rather empty, which I lay firmly at the feet of the writer. It’s a similar issue to someone taking a copy of Wastwater up to the Lake District and throwing it into the lake itself and expecting a huge ‘IRONY’ light to magically appear. It’s just no going to happen and is a bit disappointing. Do better next time or I’ll be taking the train up to the Lake District sooner than I hoped. You never know…
Written by Simon Stephens; Directed by Katie Mitchell; At the Royal Court Jerwood Downstairs; Starring Tom Sturridge, Linda Bassett, Paul Ready, Jo McInnes, Amanda Hale and Angus Wright; Runs from 31 March 11 - 07 May 11.
John Ord (06/05/2011)