Three stories plumb the bleak depths of everyday despair in Simon Stephens's play.
A triptych of short vignettes set in the shadow of Heathrow airport, Simon Stephens’s latest work at Steep Theatre crystallizes the English playwright’s facility with the thorny underbelly of ordinary lives. The subtly intertwined tales couldn’t look more different on the surface, ranging from a teenager saying goodbye to his loving foster mother, to a pair of strangers hooking up at an airport motel, to a nervous man picking up an illicit package from a cold-hearted young woman.
But Wastwater takes its title, curiously, from England’s deepest lake, and there’s much more to be found beneath the surface of these stories. That’s partly down to Stephens’s empathetic, observational telling; one of this writer’s greatest assets is his lack of judgment for his characters’ often desperate measures. It’s also a credit to Robin Witt’s intensely intimate staging and some of the most deeply lived-in performances you’re likely to see onstage right now, particularly from Melissa Riemer as the foster mom, Kendra Thulin as a police officer with a past in rather disturbing porn and Caroline Neff as an icily detached human trafficker.
The connections among these disparate characters are revealed quietly, for the most part; Stephens doesn’t hold your hand and Witt doesn’t underline anything too heavily. But the realization that Neff’s character, in the third scene, could have an intimate connection with Riemer’s from the first is all the more chilling, as Neff’s Sian tosses off: “We're connected. All of us. Just when you think we can't possibly be, you realize that we are.” Wastwater is no light summer entertainment, but it’s worth the deep dive.
Steep Theatre Company. By Simon Stephens. Directed by Robin Witt. With ensemble cast. Running time: 1hr 30mins; no intermission.