I saw a heavily pregnant woman smoking once, years ago, outside the St George’s Hospital in Tooting; it makes for an arresting image. I’m pretty sure my late grandmother smoked through most, if not all of her seven pregnancies – but it’s a different world now, and it catches the eye, and the policing of women’s bodies and their choices is never more fraught than when it comes to the bodies and choices of pregnant women.
By opening The Wasp with the image of the pregnant Carla chain-smoking, writer Morgan Lloyd Malcolm and director Tom Attenborough invite us to make assumptions about Carla’s character, about her attitude to herself and to her children, that they can spend the next ninety minutes picking apart. It’s an image fraught with class tension, as the play is: with the assumptions people make about working class women and working class mothers in particular, the pervasive idea that perhaps these women do not respect themselves, their bodies, their children, quite enough – that perhaps they give themselves and their bodies away too easily.
Carla (played by a searing MyAnna Buring, who transfers with the show from its original run at Hampstead Theatre) is having her fifth baby, while graceful, glamorous, middle-class Heather (Laura Donnelly, new in the role and excellent, despite a couple of struggles with the lines), cannot conceive even one. They were at school together, best friends until they stopped being friends at all.
The two women haven’t seen each other since they were teenagers, and at surface level their adult lives look about as different as possible. Carla’s is characterised by motherhood and money worries, while Heather’s life has an air of money and glamour, and a chilly emptiness beneath the surface that runs far deeper than the misery caused by her struggle to conceive a child. Something else, something much more ominous, has long since taken root inside of her.
The imbalance of money and power on stage makes you think you have The Wasp worked out within seconds: putting these two characters opposite one another evokes all the old disdain for an over-breeding underclass that’s been about ever since Churchill was a keen eugenicist. These women haven’t seen each other for years, and now one of them has nothing and one of them has everything but the thing she wants most, and Lloyd Malcolm dares you to assume that her play deals with the financial transaction of a baby being sold, with a working class that prices life very cheaply and a middle class that does the opposite, before subverting those assumptions just a few minutes into the play.
This is not only a play about motherhood or social class, although Lloyd Morgan is consistently good on how class interacts with gender and assumptions about gender relations. As The Wasp twists and turns, pulling the rug again and again until its tense, breathless conclusion, we see the bullied become the bully and the echo down the years of the most ill-considered actions. With the smallest turn of phrase, Lloyd Malcolm evokes years of shared history that have created two very different (or perhaps not so different) women.
Events generally stay just the right side of far-fetched, but Lloyd Malcolm packs an awful lot into her tense ninety minutes, balanced out by Tom Attenborough’s astute direction. Some of the play’s best sequences are wordless, and there are a handful of moments filled with beautiful character detail (Heather watching with vague distaste as Carla lights a cigarette off her last; a Carla who has grown so used to living hand-to-mouth that she pauses midway through storming off to stuff sugar sachets into her coat pocket), upping the realism even as Lloyd Malcolm ups and ever-ups the stakes.
By making Heather as self-aware as she is, Lloyd Malcolm risks allowing her to over-explain the play’s central themes to us, and the closing minutes stray almost towards melodrama. But it never feels unjustified, and The Wasp manages to be both a remarkably gripping thriller and a completely believable portrait of two terrifying, completely human female charcters, as well as a vehicle for two fantastically nuanced performances. Which is just the sort of thing we need more of, frankly.