Wastwater by Simon Stephens – Royal Court Theatre – Review


Wastwater is Simon Stephens latest play and has just opened at the Royal Court Theatre in London. I attended the second preview night yesterday. It’s a play that has no interval and for 1hr and 40 mins took me on an engrossing journey, where I went through a range of thoughts, feelings and emotions. That to me is a hallmark of a good playwright.

Act 1 is a beautiful act, grappling tenderly with the issue of a foster child departing from the foster parent. It’s poignant, witty and moving. It sets the foundations for this play and some of its themes are carefully woven here, although you’re not aware of them until the end. Tom Sturridge as Harry gives a touching portrayal as the foster “child” leaving. Linda Bassestt is superb as the foster mum, asking akward questions and trying not to reveal how upset she is. To say it’s a “lovely” act might make it sound a bit naff, far from it, really it is “lovely”. Well written dialogue, and acted with a genuineness that is rare to see.

The curtain comes down, rain is heard and then “boom” up goes the curtain on a totally different set, I was amazed at the transformation.

Act 2 it becomes clear pretty soon, isn’t going to be such a “lovely” act. Now I’m in a generic corporate hotel room, with a couple who are there for one reason, sex. However the conversation cleverly weaves partly into the previous scene and the sex never happens. Paul Ready as Mark and Jo McInnes as Lisa like their Act 1 colleagues perform with exceptional skill. Jo McInnes is wickedly brilliant. Throughout this act, Simon Stephens keeps us on our toes, and there are a few surprises.

Act 3 links in subtlety with Acts 1 and 2. It’s quite a disturbing and harrowing act, and yet the ending isn’t. I don’t want to say too much about it as I think you really need to see it. Amanda Hale plays her character Sian menacingly and Sian has to be one of the worst bitches I’ve seen on stage for a long time! Angus Wright’s performance as Jonathan is remarkable. As I was not sure of the nature of the transaction that is occurring at the beginning of this act, I wasn’t sure whether to be sympathetic or reviled by him. Angus Wright created a palpable sense of fear which I’ve never experienced on stage before. A brilliant performance!

Simon Stephens writing is excellent, and seeing how he ties these three acts together and confronts us with several issues and ideas at once, with the motif of Heathrow T5 and aeroplanes shows a playwright that knows their craft.

Why is it called Wastwater then? Well the scripts/programmes for sale were entitles Wastwater and T5. The lake Wastwater is referenced and so it does make sense as to why it’s called just Wastwater. If you listen to the podcast with Simon Stephens and Katie Mitchell you’ll hear more about the play and Simon Stephens love for T5!

Katie Mitchell’s direction is authentic for this play. There’s only ever two characters on stage at any one time (well three briefly in Act 3) and she brings out the inherent feeling of being trapped in each scene, contrasting it skillfully with the roaring sounds of the aeroplanes overhead “escaping”.

Although this was a preview performance, it certainly did not show. If the cast are this good on the second night it bodes very well for the rest of the run.

Wastwater in Cumbria


21 thoughts on “Wastwater by Simon Stephens – Royal Court Theatre – Review

  1. I cannot believe how much theatre you get to go and see. Where do you find the time and the money? Jealous. xx

  2. I agree with Rupert. I was so disappointed. I thought it was boring, unchallenging and a little stupid. I also had a very hard time hearing several of the actors, especially the woman in the third act. To add insult, I hated listening to the plastic cups falling over at people’s feet — maybe 20 of them? Is that because people were restless or does that always happen at the Royal Court?

  3. Hi Mary,

    Thanks for the comment, I was in the stalls (near back of them) and I didn’t feel Sian’s voice was too quiet for me, but I would agree that it wouldn’t have carried up to circle or balcony.

    As for the plastic cups, I think I heard them twice possibly, but honestly can’t recall it! Where abouts were you seated?

  4. Back of the stalls, like you. And the hearing issue could well be my ageing ears – so not her fault; or the fact that my American (ageing) ears sometimes can find fast-paced, low-toned British female speech hard to follow – also not her fault. As for the cups, I think you didn’t notice because you were liking the play! But this is all me just digressing. Mainly, I was just disappointed by the underlying work, not the actors who delivered it or the audience that watched.

    • Thanks Mary. I have read some other reviews today which have also expressed disappointment with the play. And yes, I found the plastic cups being knocked over really annoying too – perhaps we noticed it more in this play because it was not at all engaging.

  5. On my next visit all I’m going to be focusing on is how many cups are knocked over now!

    One of the things I love about theatre is how different people in the audience at the same time respond to a play. I wasn’t expecting to enjoy it, as I’ve not really clicked with Simon Stephens previous work (I’ve only ever read his other plays) and so was a bit surprised I enjoyed this.

  6. What I want to know is, what’s the cafe like? I’ve often been past and wondered whether it’s worth checking out.

    Also, while I’m here,

    And the hearing issue could well be my ageing ears – so not her fault

    I saw John Malkovich on stage once. I couldn’t hear him. It was his fault. It’s a strange for customers to blame them selves for faulty products, I think.

    You’ll notice I have nothing to saw about the actual play.

  7. Some harsh comments on here, which I would have to disagree with. There were a number of themes running through this play, which kept me thinking throughout my journey home.

    I’m pretty sure I was sat at the back of the theatre with Dominick ( the writer of this review) . The Saturday night? I agree with most of what you say, I could hear all the actors pretty well….The only slightly annoying thing was you checking your phone all the time throughout the performance. Not a big deal though. Also not a big deal was those plastic cups falling over (even though there was a number)

      • Ok, well the main being about the name of the play – Wastwater, with the line about how it’s a very still lake, but underneath it dead bodies are buried. it seemed as if this was like the characters in the play, especially the last scene – Not everything appears as it seems.
        When the final curtain came up and that chair was on the floor, I was left wondering what had actually happened.
        This innocent old man trying to get a child, or something else?
        The porn star in the second scene, We, and He (the male character) did not think that about her when it started.
        Didn’t quite see the link for the first scene, but obviously, He was in that drunken car incodent with someone from another scene.
        Things aren’t what they seem is what I got out of it.

  8. I didn’t check my phone once! I was in row J of stalls.

    Glad it got you thinking too Rhys.

    Jonathan the coffee shop is good, we’ll grab a drinky there at somepoint. I’m glad you said nothing about the play as you haven’t seen it!

  9. I saw it last night. I was about 6 rows from the front, heard it all fine, but I must admit I did notice the plastic cups thing.
    The cafe is pretty good, and I often grab a bite there before plays.

    As to the play; well directed, staged, and acted – I really liked the scenery and thought Amanda Hale was excellent as Sian. The play itself left me rather underwhelmed; it seemed to be building up to a unifying point or theme which never really came. The links between the scenes were purely ‘grafted on’ and contributed nothing to our understanding of each. It was never boring, and I was engaged throughout, but ultimately unsatisfied.

    PS : if ‘The Heretic’ (the RC downstairs play before this one) returns to the Royal Court or pops up elsewhere I would strongly recommend it – best thing I’ve seen for ages !

  10. i loved this play – especially the way it didn’t make it too easy for the audience!

    i loved the texture and intelligence of the writing. i loved the way the three apparently unrelated acts – each set somewhere near heathrow – turned out to have some sort of plot link with each of the others.

    took me a while to piece together all the things it made me think about into a coherent theme, though. but for what it’s worth, here’s my sixpennyworth.

    i thought it was “about” parental love – the only emotion that runs deep enough to calm the savagery of our relations with each other and make at least some sense of all the conflicts and darkness hidden within each of us – hence the play’s metaphor of the dead bodies/currents under the apparently still Wastwater.

    the parental love of the foster-mother in act one has done a lot, though not perhaps enough, to soothe away the hurts and horrors her foster children have come to her with from birth parents who couldn’t care for them. true, the “son” she’s saying goodbye to has been in a crash, drunk, and killed a friend, but the man he’s become feels remorse, and wants to absent himself and make amends, whereas, long ago, before he came to her, he’d been here in the same landscape, as a child criminal, deliberately setting fire to a barn and feeling nothing. another of these foster-children, sian, has rejected that near-parental love, though she still speaks to the foster-mother on the phone; she appears in Act 3 as a hard, damaged, bullying child trafficker. yet it’s possible that part of her motivation, as well as the thrill of crime and the hope of profit, is that she sees her work as a twisted, violent way to put children together with parents who are utterly desperate to raise them.

    the couple in act two have separated sex from love and the possibility of parenthood, in their different ways. The man is cheating on his wife, both with the woman he’s with in the hotel room, now, and by preparing to take a job on a different continent from her, and leave her behind, a subtler, more insidious betrayal. (then again, he’s all shaken up and has been unable to work because of the death of a student – the same car crash as in act one, we realise) – so there’s more to his retreat than just coldness, we think. the woman has a sexless relationship with her husband, a history as a porn actress, and is most excited by the idea of sex that hurts. we can sense that neither of them is on a route towards fulfilment through the sterile sexual games they’re playing. they sense it in each other, without knowing why.

    i’ve already mentioned sian in act three. the would-be parent she’s talking to is desperate enough for parenthood that he’s prepared to countenance stealing a child from its real parents, yet also appalled at the idea of the crime that will have brought this child to him; he’s terrified of dealing with criminals and possibly being robbed or killed himself. fear and self-loathing make him sick and incontinent – as pitiful yet despicable as anyone being tortured. yet, from the depths of this emotional pit, in a deserted car park, an airport, the most dehumanised cement-and-metal-mesh take yet on this generally dehumanising setting, he does, somehow, manage to summon up the human feelings that, if anything can, may redeem the situation he and the child he wants find themselves in. i think the message is that it’s those loving impulses, small and imperfect though they might be, precious as they are in the rest of the garbage – the wish to create at least the possibility of peace for another human being – that make life worth living.

  11. Wow Veeb, thanks for the thorough comment, lots to think about there.

    I think you’ve picked up a very important aspect to the play.

    Your conclusion of;

    “i think the message is that it’s those loving impulses, small and imperfect though they might be, precious as they are in the rest of the garbage – the wish to create at least the possibility of peace for another human being – that make life worth living.”

    is excellent.


  12. So i’m going to see this again tomorrow, I think it could be quite different to the first time I saw it in the opening week.

    Shall post my second thoughts on it

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