Wednesday, 6 April 2011


To the Royal Court to see Simon Stephen's new work Wastwater, directed by Katie Mitchell. The first time these two have collaborated.

Stephens is one of my favourite contemporary playwrights. He seems to be able to both hear and capture the rhythm and discordance of dialogue more than any one else working in the British theatre. On the Shore of the Wide World was probably the most poignant play written in the naughties and since then Motortown, Pornography and Punk Rock, whilst not quite achieving the same verve have all helped establish him as a serious and articulate chronicler of our times.

In Wastwater, he returns to an exploration of pattern and form. Set in three Ballard-esque lost landscapes on the parameters of Heathrow airport the play is conceived as a triptych with thin threads of experience and shared history linking the characters.

In the first section Frieda, a foster mother played exquisitely by Linda Bassett, living in a run down farm house on ground marked for a third runway, tries to find the right words to say to Harry, her awkward foster son, as he prepares to leave for a new life in Canada. In the second Mark, a nervous art teacher, prepares to start an affair with a married masochistic police woman, working in child protection, in a faceless hotel. The final scene is set in a deserted warehouse, where a middle aged former teacher waits uneasily for the arrival of an illegally adopted Filipino child and is verbally tortured by Sian, a trafficking agent, who, it turns out, spent her teenage years with Frieda.

Mitchell directs each part with wonderful precision, helping to create the nervous uncertain tension of six characters each waiting for take off, unsure of where the decisions they're making will lead them. The piece is brilliantly balanced and sympathies shift second to second as the scenes unravel to reveal a world of desperate need, where the lines between care and abuse, protagonist and antagonist are constantly and often unexpectedly redrawn.

If there is a criticism it's that the play never quite takes narrative flight, but this is more a study than a drama in the traditional sense. A moving provocation recognising how easy it is to be stuck in a departure lounge waiting for something more exotic to tempt our fancy.

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