Nick Payne’s first full-length play, 2009’s If There is I Haven’t Found it Yet, was a breakthrough success at the Bush Theatre; his 2012 play Constellations, which transferred to the West End after premiering at the Royal Court, picked up an Evening Standard award; and now there’s this. The Same Deep Water as Me carries on its shoulders something that nothing else he’s done before has had to: the horrible weight of expectation.
Largely, Payne shoulders the burden well. The Same Deep Water as Me, is a tight, entertaining play about the nature – or perhaps better, the thrill – of lying. A courtroom drama of sorts, the play centres around Luton-based personal injury lawyers Andrew and Barry (played by Daniel Mays and Nigel Lindsay), and their wide-boy new client, Kevin (Marc Wootton). It soon transpires that Andrew and Kevin have a bit of previous, being one-time school friends until Andrew managed to escape to London several years ago. Dragged back to the provinces by way of a failed marriage and a deepening responsibility to look after his ailing father, Andrew has tried and failed, something that Kevin, a deeply manipulative person, won’t let him forget too readily. With overheads mounting up and a slew of corruption printed in the press about bankers’ bonuses and MP’s expenses, who’s going to know if Kevin files the odd dodgy insurance claim to Andrew? And so a devil’s deal is done – they’ll just be going after the face-less big boys, anyway, it’s not like they’re mugging little old ladies, is it?
Mays, Lindsay and Wootton are excellent in the lead roles. Mays, gives Andrew an everyday try-your-best-kind of optimism. Things might not be going his way, but there’s a spark, a pluckiness and a generosity of spirit about him that makes us root for him, despite the fact that he is slowly getting sucked into a murky web of fraud and deceit. Lindsay’s Barry is equally good, presenting a warm, avuncular solicitor who, though perhaps not the sharpest legal mind in Luton, has a rough set of principles he’s unwilling to surrender. Wootton too is very impressive as Kevin, a be-ringed and braceleted manchild who, convinced the world owes him a living, is happy to commit all manner of personal injury fraud in order to fill his house with big screen TVs, designer clothes and other materialistic gumpf.
The real power of the play, however, comes from Payne’s treatment of lying and, in particular, the justification people give for lying. There’s a dog-eat-dog aura to Payne’s outside world reminiscent of Mamet’s Speed the Plow or Glengarry Glen Ross, but the stakes here are far lower, this is suburban England remember. There’s also more warmth here, more moralistic red tape that characters have to go through before they out-and-out perjure themselves – Niky Wardley’s spectacularly well-observed Jennifer, Kevin’s put upon wife, feels so sharply nervous about lying under oath she refuses to swear on the Bible, and then pukes all over the witness stand.
But there are problems. The dialogue not as sharp as was in Constellations, and the concept of a play based on personal injury lawyers at all feels a good five-or-six years behind the zeitgeist. Constant references to popular culture – Dragons’ Den or Greggs – raise a few titters in the audience, but ultimately this comes across as limiting and superficial rather than providing any real insight into the characters or the world of the play. There are some structural issues too, a grand scam cooked up by a handful of characters at the end of the first half goes nowhere, and before the final scene there seems to be a missing reel, where the action jumps an unclear amount of time into the future.
In terms of performance, Isabella Laughland’s delightful comic turn in the second half really raises the stakes and Scott Pask’s eerily evocative courtroom set captures perfectly a provincial-municipal aesthetic, all faux-oak panels, maroon carpet tiles and turquoise upholstered chairs, seemingly both brightly-coloured and drab at the same time.
Ultimately, though, The Same Deep Water as Me is perhaps not quite the tour de force I was hoping for. It’s enjoyable certainly, with some cracking lines, some great ideas and some thoughtful performances but it doesn’t feel as if Payne is working quite at full-capacity here.