Last year, Nick Payne won Best Play at the Evening Standard Theatre Awards for Constellations, a clever, poignant love story exploring the scientific concept of a “multiverse”. He follows it up with a drama that is formally less complex – here, time is single and linear – but which confirms his sharp wit and superb ear for the varied languages of social class and profession.
The play opens in the drab offices of Scorpion Claims, a two-man personal injury firm in the London satellite town of Luton. It’s a hot summer, the desktop fan is “on the blink” and business is slow. Slow, that is, until Kevin, a bullish former classmate of Andrew, the younger and more cynical of the lawyers, shows up with a dodgy-sounding claim and things begin to spiral out of control.
Scorpion Claims is brilliantly realised, from designer Scott Pask’s stained ceiling tiles and cluttered wood effect desks to Andrew and Barry’s well-worn routines (“Might nip to Greggs. Fancy anything?”). We grow so used to their slangy, quick-fire banter that it comes as a shock, in Act Two, to find ourselves in a courtroom, with its starchy formality and specialised vocabulary. This is a play not only about lies but about language. In the office, the garrulous Kevin is as liberal with his appropriation of expressions as he is with the truth, describing an unintelligent friend as “as thick as thieves”. But in the unfamiliar surrounds of the courtroom, he resorts to prefacing everything with the F word.
The court scenes, like those in the office, are wonderfully funny, with an understated turn from Peter Forbes as a kindly Scottish judge given to philosophical musings. But this nuanced satire of the no-win-no-fee culture veers into less certain territory in its final act. The shift in tone – though it is signalled a blast of Kanye West’s “Power” during a scene change – feels abrupt. Until this point, Daniel Mays has been excellent in the role of Andrew, a man for whom things are slowly unravelling – but he is suddenly less convincing once they’ve unravelled. The fight scene feels gratuitous and the emotion a little overwrought.
And yet The Same Deep Water As Me is, for the most part, hugely enjoyable. The cast is superb, and director John Crowley matches Payne’s verbal wit with plenty of inspired visual gags. If anything, the play is a victim of its own ambition: full of sharp observations of social mores, yet not content to be a mere comedy of manners.