Wet Houses are shelters for chronic alcoholics that allow their residents to drink as they please. Is that providing a safe environment for those beyond help or admitting defeat, giving up as they give up on themselves? It's like Dignitas, reasons one of the carers in Paddy Campbell’s brilliant full-length debut, ‘but done really slowly and with no pretence of dignity.’
Transferring to London from Live Theatre in Newcastle, ‘Wet House’ is an excruciating, excoriating watch: as damning a portrait of systemic corruption as you’ll see all year. It’s easy to recognise the abuse allegations at Broadmoor, the blind eyes of Rotherham and, metaphorically, the slow slide towards endemic failure even in mainstream institutions. ‘Wet House’ is, quite simply, the play for this moment.
Campbell focuses on three carers at Crabtree House: idealistic art history grad Andy (Riley Jones), wide-eyed and wet-behind-the-ears; Helen (Jackie Lye), whose care verges on surrogacy; and Mike (Chris Connel), a no-nonsense ex-squaddie, whose humour is the driest thing in the place. Turn your back for a second, he warns, ‘and someone’ll steal your kidneys.’
Mike sees it as it is: if you can’t scrape yourself off the bottom of the barrel, no one’s going to do it for you. But his tough love looks a lot like torment, as he jokes around with Crabtree’s loveable shambles Dinger, and especially when when convicted paedophile Spencer arrives and the petty cash goes missing. Campbell ratchets up the stakes scene by scene: small cruelties graduate to stomach-churning abuse. Invoking the bystander effect and Stanford prison experiments, Campbell shows how the blind guard the blind-drunk. It’s a gruelling thing to watch.
Thank God for the laughs, then. The piece is consistently hilarious and all the more troubling for it. Mike – the best character since 'Jerusalem's Rooster Byron, played superbly with a smile-snarl by Connel – remains likeable in spite of everything. Come the end, you still laugh at his jokes. Simon Roberts as Spencer lets slip the sadness that booze staves off; and Joe Caffrey makes Dinger a latterday Falstaff.
Yes, there are rough edges and broad bits in Max Roberts’s production, but I’d implore you to look beyond them. Human and humane, ‘Wet House’ knows that people are breakable and kindness is all. And it’s 100 percent proof of a major new talent.