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Review Round-up: Mixed Bag for Court Wastwater

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Simon Stephens’ new play Wastwater opened at the Royal Court this week (5 April 2011, previews from 31 March), with a cast including Linda Bassett and Tom Sturridge (who starred in Stephens’ Punk Rock at the Lyric Hammersmith last year).

Set on the edges of Heathrow Airport, Wastwater is billed as an “elliptical triptych” - a snapshot of three different couples who make a choice that will define the fallout of their future.

Katie Mitchell directs a cast that also features Amanda Hale, Jo McInnes, Paul Ready and Angus Wright, and it continues in the Jerwood Theatre Downstairs until 7 May.

Michael Coveney

"The depths of Wastwater in the Lake District are a metaphor of hidden secrets and emotional undercurrents in Simon Stephens’ enthralling new triptych of inter-linked plays, directed with calm, unshowy assurance by Katie Mitchell, and beautifully acted … With the distance goes the violence: accidental violence in the first play, a masochistic undertow in the second – Jo McInnes is literally panting with expectation throughout before demanding to be hit (well, Stephens does have to keep an eye on his German market) – and intellectual bullying and taunting by the agent in the third. The plays exercise an insidious fascination and touch many an exposed nerve in our views about how we look out for our children and what we should expect (or not expect) of those charged with caring for them in public. Much of the evening is shocking, even upsetting. But it’s seriously written and seriously enjoyable.”

Libby Purves
The Times

“Mr Stephens is an Olivier winner, noted for using mundane settings and psychological acuity to explore, as an admirer wrote, ‘the blankness and violence that underpin human intimacy’. Mitchell is an avant-garde auteurish director: both are big in Germany. So hell, nobody was expecting fun. But it is the sheer lack of clarity which sinks this play … The first scene is the best: in a conservatory under the flightpath, a foster mother, Frieda (Linda Bassett, quirky and real) is seeing off the gloomy adolescent Harry to count whales in Vancouver Island. There is an Alan-Bennettish humanity here, and the sound of aeroplane effects promises a meditation on partings. But for the second scene we move to a hotel room where a couple are contemplating sex. Only Lisa has secrets to confide first: she’s a police officer, in child protection. Oh, and a heroin addict, who funds her habit with porn films … Fortified by sado-masochistic sex slapping, on we go to part three, to a grim warehouse where the brutal Sian is tormenting Jonathan as they await a nine-year-old Filipino girl he is buying … Aficionados will find meaning in it: human darkness, alienation, air travel, whatever. I didn’t. It gave me nothing.”

Michael Billington

"For all the momentary power of an evening that takes the form of a compressed triptych, I was left simply with a feeling of impotent disquiet … Stephens cunningly links the three scenes: the Habanera from Carmen recurs, and the steely child-slaver turns out to be a product of the foster home referred to at the beginning. The internet is also a common factor, functioning as a conversation-killer, a source of hotel porn, or a means of pursuing our darkest, illegal desires … Katie Mitchell directs with her meticulous precision. Lizzie Clachan's design ingeniously embraces three radically different settings. And the acting is extremely good. Linda Bassett and Tom Sturridge as the quasi-incestuous foster mother and her fugitive charge … But where a dystopian play like Caryl Churchill's Far Away used domestic terror to imply a universe on the edge of the abyss, Stephens's triptych offers isolated existential choices.”

Henry Hitchings
Evening Standard

"Obliquely inspired by the abduction of Madeleine McCann and more obviously animated by Stephens's love of Heathrow's Terminal 5, the play is a triptych, which begins placidly and becomes increasingly suffused with ugliness and violence … All three sections are set near airports, which serve as an image of the alienated blankness that Stephens' characters habitually manifest. Here it feels as if he is suggesting that, while modern society is desperately atomised, certain ties still bind us together. Mitchell's lucid, largely orthodox direction creates discomfort. Lizzie Clachan's designs for the three different spaces are lovingly realised and there are well-defined performances: Tom Sturridge is exquisitely awkward as Harry, Linda Bassett makes a touching Frieda and Jo McInnes bristles with troubled sexual energy as Lisa. Yet this is a strangely elliptical work … Although the play may not be intended as mordant social criticism, it is hard to grasp its true purposes.”

Charles Spencer
Daily Telegraph

“Meet the dramatist Simon Stephens in person and he is the most cheerful and affable of men. His work is another matter … I have to admit that I’d much rather have a cup of coffee and a friendly chat with Stephens than watch one of his plays … Travelling back home after this show, I found that Wastwater had somehow tainted the whole day without offering anything positive in return … Stephens clearly wants us to consider the darker depths of the human heart. In this he certainly succeeds. But the writing is so elliptical, the characters’ motives and feelings so obscure, that one never becomes fully involved … There are particularly strong performances from Jo McInnes as the policewoman with a troubled past who longs to be hurt, Amanda Hale as the psychopathic trafficker in smuggled children and Angus Wright as the terrified man who has got himself involved in an evil deal he cannot escape. But for all the skill of both writing and performances, it is a relief to escape this manipulative, cruel and cold-hearted play.”


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