The tarantula hawk is a damn scary looking wasp. Its rather horrid modus operandi is to lay eggs in its spider victims allowing its young to eat the unfortunate arachnid from the inside out. Morgan Lloyd Malcolm takes the metaphor of infestation and runs with it in this nasty little story of school bully Carla (Lisa Gorgin) and victim Heather (Selina Giles), reunited after many years with not even a trickle of proverbial water under the bridge. It appears that the eggs laid by childhood cruelty die hard. But in the vein of creepy entomologist narratives that have gone before (see John Fowles The Collector, Lawrence Wilson’s Lost Monsters and any film set that includes lepidopterist displays – SEE THEY ARE EVIL, THEY LITERALLY TEAR THE WINGS OFF MOTHS*) the metaphor for mercilessness is rather laboured.
Giles veers between creepily naturalistic and television psychopath, practically hissing like a snake poised to strike. Gorgin is more consistent: her face constantly reads as if she is ready for flight or fight at the slightest provocation. The actors create a tight thread of tension between them and their self-defined ‘worlds’; Heather as the faithful middle-class wife whose worst vice is caffeine, Carla as the fifth time pregnant, chain smoker, traumatised by domestic violence. Personally, I found something uncomfortable in the clichéd presentation of Carla as one step away from Vicky Pollard, especially in such a space as the Jermyn Street Theatre, surrounded by shops selling thousand-pound dressing gowns. Maybe it is a misjudgement, but it seems unlikely that many of the target audience grew up with Carlas, and such shorthand reduces characters like her to tabloid stereotypes. It is much to Gorgin’s credit that she manages to convey a complexity that elevates her from caricature.
Giles and Gorgin are the saving grace of this otherwise weak production. Mike Leopold’s set does its job just fine, as well it should be being almost identical to David Woodhead’s 2015 version for the Hampstead Theatre downstairs. It could be levelled that there are only so many ways to interpret such precise settings, but Strindberg’s instructions for Miss Julie take up over a page, including a diagram, and yet designers seem to manage it. In fact, there’s a general sloppiness to the production values as a whole. Paint finishes are chipped, doors don’t close properly, the program is full of typos and the music slams out any nuances, Radiohead’s ‘Creep’ giving us a subtle hint as to a character’s hidden side. Individually these elements are little annoying mosquito bites but in abundance they build to a distracting irritation.
Morgan Lloyd Malcolm’s writing is the equivalent of those 99p thrillers that the Kindle store is constantly promoting, where the blurb will be sure to press that they contain ‘a Gone Girl style twist!’. This isn’t a bad thing; those books sell in their thousands and though it’s similarly formulaic, Lloyd Malcolm has written a theatrical page turner. It is the reluctance by director Anna Simpson to commit to any one genre with the style of the production that lets it down. We start in snappy, modern thriller, move into a long-winded interpretative mime sequence, then start the second act in Hitchcockian suspense before descending into violent melodrama. The plot twist is a pretty good surprise but the worst prop knife ever seen on a London stage (I’m not exaggerating, it looks like it came from the Early Learning Centre) really does remove the tension.
The Wasp is a sadly still rare opportunity for two excellent actors (as Gorgin and Giles are) to have a lot of fun with Bechdel Test-shattering parts, and the twisted villainy that is usually the preserve of scary men in smart suit characters. It would also have given me the chance to use lots of insect-based puns as to the ‘buzz’ around the production’s ‘sting in the tail’, but sadly this specimen is utterly harmless, masquerading as a threat in false colours.
*Just in case Exeunt is read by any keen butterfly collectors, I am aware that this is an incorrect use of the term ‘literally’. You don’t ‘literally’ tear the wings of moths, you just put them in a container that IS ‘literally’ called a ‘Killing Jar’ and then stick pins through them. Which unless you are a 19th century natural biologist, all seems rather unnecessary.
The Wasp is on until 12 August 2017 at the Jermyn Street Theatre. Click here for more details.