I find Simon Stephens' plays pretty hit-or-miss; Wastwater at the Royal Court has to, overall, fall into the latter category for me. Its structure is similar to that of David Eldridge's (one of Stephens' co-writers on A Thousand Stars Explode In The Sky) Under the Blue Sky, of three separate scenes, each featuring a different couple, with certain connections that get gradually revealed. First up a rather sweet, moving scene of a foster mother and son (Linda Bassett and Tom Sturridge) parting for what looks like it'll be the last-ever time, as he prepares to move to Canada. Then we move to a hotel room where a couple (Paul Ready and Jo McInnes) are about to embark on an affair but McInnes' Lisa is determined, before they have sex, to make him aware of just how disturbing her past is. Finally Jonathan and Sian (Angus Wright and Amanda Hale) meet in a disused warehouse to make an appalling, illegal transaction.
The play's described as "elliptical" which here would seem to mean "wilfully obscure." There's many recurring motifs (teachers; a tune from Carmen; fostering and adoption; men wetting themselves¹ and while the title Wastwater [pronounced wostwater] is the name of the deepest lake in the Lake District, all the scenes take place somewhere near Heathrow airport²) but the actual relationships between the three sets of characters are for the most part pretty tenuous (only parts 1 and 3 having anything approaching a strong link.) Within each playlet there's also a hell of a lot left unanswered so there's an awful lot of frustration in trying to work out what Stephens' overall point is. At least the first two sections are entertaining enough in their own right - the opener is quietly moving and the middle section the funniest, if often in a dark way³ - but the third is hard work in many ways. Including, as Richard and I agreed afterwards, the fact that the crime being committed makes absolutely no sense (they'd never be able to cover it up.) On the way out the sole topic of conversation I could hear was people trying to piece together the links between the three playlets, which surely indicates that somewhere the point's been missed.
Still, the performances are all very strong and director Katie Mitchell dispenses with some of her trademark flourishes and goes for a steady, tight production (nobody gets wrapped in clingfilm, although the character of Sian is so vile I probably wouldn't have minded if she had been.) And the undoubted star of the piece is Lizzie Clachan's set, specifically the spectacularly fast changes between scenes - the programme tells me the set was built by Miraculous Engineering, which is rather apt. I just wish they hadn't opted to bring the curtain down for these, I'd have liked to see just how they did it.
Wastwater by Simon Stephens is booking until the 7th of May at the Royal Court Jerwood Theatre Downstairs.
¹calm down Stephens, you're not Polly Stenham
²of course oblique titles are nothing new to Simon Stephens - Punk Rock was about a high school shooting and Pornography about the 7/7 bombings
³having said that, Part 2 was the one where Andy briefly nodded off