“I’m exhausted, sweating like a fucking dyslexic on Countdown”
The Donmar Warehouse has two levels, stalls and a circle. It’s fairly obvious, you can’t really miss it – about half the audience is upstairs. Yet watching The Same Deep Water As Me, directed by John Crowley and designed by Scott Pask, you’d think they’d forgotten that simple fact, or else considered that those in the ‘cheap’ seats would simply have to make do. Pask’s reconstruction of a non-descript office stops at room height, as does the second half’s courtroom and Crowley has much of the action throughout inward-facing, somehow contriving to make even this intimate studio feel as distant as a West End house.
Perhaps you just get what you pay for – I opted for a £7.50 standing ticket in the circle and was promoted to front row circle for the second half but the nagging feeling of neglect never left me, as I gazed on the wiring in the ceiling for the lights in the office below and the backs of many peoples’ heads during the courtroom conversations. And as a ticket-payer (even at that price), it’s hard not to feel a little disheartened at what feels perilously close to disregard with a set that simply stops at stalls level. It is somewhat of a shame that this is the primary thought in my head after seeing Nick Payne’s new play but I have to be honest about what my experience was like.
The Same Deep Water As Me is set in the no-win-no-fee world of Scorpion Claims, Luton’s soi-disant premier personal injury lawyers, and the troubled path that solicitor Andrew Eagleman travels into the world of fraudulent claims after a chance encounter with old schoolmate Kevin. But though blessed with such excellent one-liners and a wonderfully sparky sense of humour, it is also a frustratingly vague piece of writing when it comes to much of its central thrust. Payne tells us that solicitors are people too but Daniel Mays struggles to overcome the enigmatic lack of detail to Andrew – his relationship with his father, time spent in London, threads left hanging and leaving Mays on too much of a single note for his performance.
Where Payne does excel here is in the supporting characters. Barry, Andrew’s all-too-decent and unsuspecting boss, is given brilliant life by a grizzled Nigel Lindsay (though he is another character who one might say is underwritten); Peter Forbes nails the self-importance and self-satisfaction of the county court judge; Marc Wootton’s Kevin, the wideboy on the make and Niky Wardley as his wife, who has her own connection to Andrew, are both comically strong; and Isabella Laughland probably ought to win awards for a scene-stealing cameo as a van driver who is just hilarious.
Larger themes of class are touched upon, along with the idea of how a small lie can snowball into something uncontrollable but for me, the play lost its way in the final stages. As amusing as the testimonies are, the result of the court case seems scarcely credible, the late explosion of violence lacks nuance and the emotion of the last scene feels barely earned. But there’s an undoubted gift for character that makes this worth watching (though probably from the stalls…!), not least for the fact that Payne’s realisation of the comic potential of an unfinished joke.