LIVE THEATRE, NEWCASTLE-UPON-TYNE
Reviewed Mark Brown
“Write what you know”, Mark Twain told aspiring writers. This has always seemed to me to be highly dubious advice; particularly with regard to the theatre, where dramas of imagination so often prove to be more rewarding than dramas of experience. That, among other reasons, is why we prefer Shakespeare’s Hamlet to John Godber’s Teechers (the latter of which was inspired by the writer’s period teaching in a Yorkshire high school).
Nevertheless, Twain’s suggestion seems to have been adopted as a motto by the Live Theatre writers’ group, from which comes Wet House, the first full-length play by Paddy Campbell.
The author used to work in a wet house; that is, an institution in which the most desperate alcoholics can drink in a supposedly “secure environment”. Indeed, according to Campbell, wet houses also function as virtual social dustbins for people, ranging from drug addicts to paedophiles, whose behaviour has proved too difficult for the other services to handle.
The play begins inauspiciously, as Campbell’s six-strong cast outline what appear to be a series of darkly comic stereotypes. Wet house “care worker” Mike (a wise-cracking, cynical ex-paratrooper) is juxtaposed with new staff member (and cycling former art history student) Andy. Resident Kerry is promiscuous, pregnant and permanently, er, inebriated. Care worker Helen is big-hearted, childless and (somewhat dubiously) sexually desperate.
The initial comedy of the piece is variable. Andy’s observation that the wet house is “kind of like that Dignitas place in Switzerland, only done really slowly and without any pretence of dignity” is wry and poignant. His confession that he “cried at Watership Down” is witless and lazy.
However, what appears to be an uneven, bleak sitcom gives way to a convincing and appalling drama of violence, cover-up and collusion. It would be a crime to divulge the play’s turning point; suffice it to say that its unflinching, Ken Loach-style social realism is all the more powerful, not say believable, because the world of the wet house is so hidden from public view.
Director Max Roberts’ increasingly compelling production is rendered all the more credible by Gary McCann’s set (absolutely evocative of the bottom rung of social care) and the uniformly excellent performances of a fine ensemble. However, the laurels must go to Campbell. His smartly-structured play defies expectations and finds a strong, theatrical language in which to tell some unpalatable truths.
Until October 5. For further information, visit: live.org.uk
This review was originally published on the website of the Daily Telegraph on September 25, 2013:
© Mark Brown