Wastwater – Royal Court

Still waters run deep in Wastwater, Englands deepest lake and there are also dark secrets buried just beneath its shadowy waters.

The lake is the inspiration, and provides the title, for Simon Stephens’ new play, but instead of being set in the Lake District, for some reason the action takes place in various locations around the perimeter of Heathrow Airport.

Three scenes each feature a different couple facing a decision that will change their lives forever. There is no common theme across the pieces and, although there is a tenuous link between the protagonists, it’s never clear what message Stephens is trying to leave us with.

Scene one, set in a village under threat of demolition by Heathrow expansion sees foster mother Freida preparing to say farewell to her latest ward, who is about to jet off to Canada to escape his demons. It’s an intimate portrayal but one that never fully captivates the imagination nor gives a real insight into the characters.

Scene two moves to a luxury hotel room at the airport, scene of a clandestine meeting between two married individuals – married to other people, that is. What starts out as an illicit but exciting prospect takes a much darker turn but, again, the characters are only slightly drawn and we never understand their motives.

The final scene is perhaps the darkest of the triptych. In a warehouse on the edge of the runway a man is having second thoughts about a deal to buy a nine-year-old girl, the child smuggled into the country by a trafficking gang. It’s starkly chilling but, once more, there is nothing to explain the rationale behind the actions, nor an understanding of how this fits into the whole.

Lizzie Clachan’s designs are the one success of the evening, creating three locales in quick succession but Katie Mitchell’s direction doesn’t really make full use of the design, with mainly static blocking.

There is perhaps potential for individual stories to be expanded into full length pieces and, at the moment, there is something of an air of tasters about Wastwater. In many ways it resembles a writer showing his portfolio of ideas for development rather than a coherent evening.

There are some strong performances from the company who try their best with the limited material. Paul Ready as the nervous art teacher in the hotel room; Linda Bassett as Frieda the brooding foster mother and Amanda Hale as the manipulative people trafficker Sian. It is, however, difficult to engage with any of the characters as Stephens’ never provides a credible framework for their behaviour.

Despite the ever present sound of jumbo jets, Wastwater is a play that never fully takes off.

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