According to one of the characters in Simon Stephens’ new triptych, the eponymous Wastwater is “the deepest lake in the country…it’s never completely out of the shadow. It’s terribly still…but you should see how many bodies are hidden under there.” As a metaphor for the play’s exploration of the dark undercurrents of the human psyche this is apt, but the problem is that it does not probe deeply enough beneath the surface.
Set about the same time in different locations near Heathrow Airport, the three acts feature contrasting couples at a critical moment in their flight paths. In a greenhouse on farmland in danger of being acquisitioned for a third runway, an over-concerned woman and her intense foster-son say goodbye with awkward tenderness just before he flies to Canada to start a new life after a tragic accident. In a smart airport hotel a disillusioned art teacher and child-protection policewoman recovering from addiction exchange shocking confidences on the verge of an adulterous affair. And in a desolate warehouse a threatening female child trafficker interrogates a man desperate to illegally adopt a girl from the Philippines.
By the end, we realize that the characters are linked, but the connections seem rather tenuous. Although there is an overriding theme about the abuse of children, it is not developed very much, while the small recurring details such as the humming of a tune from Carmen seem superficial. The relationships within each act are set up with subtle skill, but overall the play feels fragmented and not adding up to more than the sum of its parts.
What does come across strongly though in Katie Mitchell’s tight production is a sense of transition in the characters’ lives in the liminal space of an airport, with the thundering sound and flickering lights of passing planes adding an unsettling quality to these tensely ambivalent encounters of damaged people, where violence is always in the air. Lizzie Clachan’s effective design morphs remarkably quickly from one scenario to the next to maintain momentum. The excellent cast of Tom Sturridge, Linda Bassett, Paul Ready, Jo McInnes, Amanda Hale and Angus Wright do well to involve us in their characters’ plight, if only fleetingly.
Stephens has established himself as one of the leading British playwrights of the last ten years or so, with plays like Motortown, Harper Regan and Punk Rock. Though Wastwater does not show him at his best, it does contain characteristically intriguing elliptical exchanges and flashes of sharp humour which compel our attention.