Wastwater, Jerwood Theatre Downstairs, Royal Court, London

I have long admired 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, just the faint prospect that characters may stop so compulsively screwing up their own and each other’s lives. Wastwater offers a new experience: the bleakness without the hope. This work still speaks to me, but it does not sing.

The publicity material describes the play accurately as an “elliptical triptych”. We see three scenes, each about 30 minutes long, each self-contained – although oblique, incidental links are made between the different scenes’ characters. In the first, Harry (Tom Sturridge, who made a powerful debut in Stephens’ Punk Rock) is taking leave of his foster-mother Frieda (Linda Bassett) before he flies to Vancouver, to some unspecified “centre”; he appears to have 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) meet in a hotel room for an illicit tryst. Lisa’s 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 what is salient. Stephens may intend his usual chink of hope, but I can espy none.

The scenes are 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. Director Katie Mitchell turns in one of her rigorously unshowy productions.

Wastwater is the deepest lake in, and nowhere near Heathrow. It is, according to one of the characters, a favoured spot for dumping corpses. That is the sense I take away from these scenes of disconnection and awkwardness that escalate to unpleasantness and repulsion: the deeper one goes, the darker it gets, and there is nothing to find but bodies.

 

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