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Brief Encounter with... Nick Payne and Daniel Mays

As The Same Deep Water As Me premieres at the Donmar Warehouse, we catch up with its writer and star to discuss insurance fraud, the art of lying and why plays on screen don't always work

Daniel Mays and Nick Payne

The title - tell us more.
Nick Payne: It's a song title - I didn't come up with it, so I can't claim ownership. The Same Deep Water as Me is a song by a band called I Am Kloot. There are references in the play to the idea that we're all in this mess together and we've all got the same chance of getting out of it. But I want to emphasise that I'm in it too. I'm not keen on plays where you feel like the author is actively judging the characters – I prefer the feeling that I'm in it with them.

Can you give us an overview of the story?
Daniel Mays: My character Andrew is a down-at-heel injury lawyer who exists in the world of no win, no fee. He grew up in Luton and went to London to make something of himself, but due to various reasons, he's pulled back to the place he desperately wanted to escape. Then in walks a character called Kevin [played by Mark Wootton], an old school friend, who manages to rope him into a crash-for-cash scheme. And Kevin is now married to Jennifer [Niky Wardley], who was Andrew's childhood sweetheart, so they're incredibly tangled emotionally. The play is about what it means to tell a lie, once you step over that line into criminality.

I understand it was inspired by an encounter with [Donmar artistic director] Josie Rourke's brother?
Payne: Yeah, he came to see the last night of a play I had on at the Bush that Josie directed, and afterwards we got chatting about his job – he's a sort of fraud detection specialist. I asked him a few questions and he started talking about these rings of people who make a living out of crashing cars. I'd anecdotally heard out about ambulance chasers, that kind of thing, but I'd never actually heard of an operation on that scale. It has an almost entrepreneurial spirit about it. Anyway, I asked him loads of questions and then he let me come and sit in on a trial that he was involved in. People were clearly lying but they were rubbish at it - I couldn't believe how bad they were. I thought it was interesting not just that they felt able to lie, but that they felt they could get away with it.

Nigel Lindsay, Daniel Mays and Monica Dolan in The Same Deep Water As Me
© Johan Persson

The thing about lying is that you're performing. Maybe that's a bit of a crude link, but when you get in a witness stand and someone cross examines you, in a way you're acting, you're bullshitting. Though that's not to say that acting's bullshitting... I found it really interesting that there's a scale of what someone presents in public and what they present when they're on their own. Hopefully, there are moments in the play where characters behave very differently depending on the configuration of who they're with from moment to moment.

Would you say the play chimes with the age of recession?
Mays: It feels incredibly relevant with the times that we're living in. It's looking at what a desperate state we're in, and what you're willing to do to survive when your back is against the wall.

A lot of people are in Andrew's situation currently, returning from London to their hometowns.
Mays: Completely. And to a certain degree I can relate to that. Some people stay in the same place all their lives, but the fact he's returned introduces so much tension. Everywhere he goes there are characters that he's tried to escape, and everyone has preconceived ideas about why he's back - particularly Kevin, who's desperate to know what has actually happened. It sets them on a collision course, though they don't actually know they're going to collide. It builds over the course of the play into something absolutely horrendous and brutal in the last act. I should say it's an incredibly funny play as well, but alongside that there's a great kind of seriousness. So in terms of acting there's a lot to play with.

It's quite a different challenge to your previous role at the Donmar [in Trelawny of the Wells].
Mays: Yeah, there'll be no black tights! Well, we haven't spoken about black tights yet anyway... I had a lot of fun playing that role, and the fact it was [director] Joe Wright's first stage play was something really special.

Nick, it's your Donmar debut, and your first play after Constellations. Does that bring pressure?
Payne: I honestly don't know. The brilliant thing about rehearsal is it feels like you get to work on it, not in a bubble, that's not quite the right word, but nothing else is really bothering you except the play. That's why I love rehearsal, just being around it. Seeing it being worked out and put together and fixed in various ways. The play is so different to Constellations - I can't think what the right phrase is, but they're such different plays that there aren't really any links between them. So if you're looking for the same thing it's not going to be there, and I hope in a good way. It's very consciously a different kind of play, set in a different world with a different set of people.

Did you see Constellations, Danny?
Mays: Do you know what, I didn't. I couldn't get a ticket at the Royal Court and then it was in the West End when I was doing Hero, so it never came about. But I saw Nick's other play at the Bush with Rafe [Spall], which I loved [If There Is I Haven't Found It Yet].

What drew you to The Same Deep Water As Me?
Mays: When I first read it, I thought it has that depth of an Arthur Miller play, or a Glengarry Glen Ross, but set in Luton. It really does ask deep, fundamental questions of its characters. It shows life-changing events and what the consequences of those are. A lot of the lines are going in very easily in rehearsal, and that's a mark of a good piece of writing. Normally, if you can't remember a line, that's a sign it's poorly written.

Director John Crowley (centre) and the company in rehearsals

You've done a run of theatre work recently – how does it compare to TV and film?
Mays: It's a very different process, largely due to the length of time you have to rehearse in theatre. I thoroughly enjoy the investigation of it all, sitting down and taking the whole thing apart. John Crowley [director] has got a wealth of experience and is meticulous in his detail. TV's not like that – you do your thing, and if the director likes it on the day they generally just move on. I'm terrible really because, if I'm on a long TV project, I'm itching to do theatre, and then midway through a theatre run I'll go, ‘I just want to do a film'. But they do often come in bursts. If you start doing a lot of theatre, people go ‘oh right so he's keen on doing that' so lots more offers come in. But I've never had a game plan. It's so precarious this industry. I don't think you can ever second guess anything, and you can never rest on your laurels.

And Nick, what about your screen work? There were rumours of a Constellations film
Payne: I spoke way too soon on that, it's not happening. At one point it was discussed, but then I realised I didn't know how to do it on film, to be totally honest. But it's gone on to have plenty of life as a play. One of the amazing things that an adaptation of a play onto film can do is extend the life of the play. You do it on film and suddenly the prospect of people seeing a project that only ran for a few weeks doubles, trebles. But Constellations has kind of done that for itself in that it's going on in Europe, it was on in Melbourne, it was on in South America. I just started to think ‘why am I doing it? Why does it need to be a film?' And I came to the conclusion that it doesn't.

Can you relate to that, Danny?
Mays: I remember when we did Motortown at the Royal Court, Channel Four got on to [writer] Simon Stephens to do a screenplay. But he had to tinker with the ending to the point that it changed the whole thing. In the end, we thought ‘why are we doing this?', because the purist form of it is on stage, and if you mess around with it, that magic goes.

Payne: There's something about a really good play like Motortown, whereby the fact that it's a play is sort of in its blood. I'm all for screen adaptations generally, but if the reasons aren't good enough or strong enough, I don't know why you would arbitrarily go ‘yes let's do it as a film'.

That being said, Same Deep Water... does sound quite filmic.
Payne: Yeah why not - you could show all the car crashes!

Mays: It is filmic, without doubt. After all, it's set in real places. We went on a research trip to Luton, and we looked at the roundabout that we're talking about and county court and all of that. Plus, it's so relevant for its time. It's a proper state-of-the-nation play.

The Same Deep Water As Me opens tonight (6 August 2013) and continues at the Donmar Warehouse until 28 September.