Wet House: the challenge of the début

Paddy Campbell’s Wet House at Live Theatre is a promising start. But in spite of this, I have some misgivings about Live’s influence.

Charaters from Wet House

Like most new writing theatres, Live Theatre wants to build up relationships with writers they can call their own. Lee Hall has a string of successes at Live, as shortly to be demonstrated by the upcoming re-run of one of his many successes, Cooking With Elvis. More recently, Lee Mattinson has been building up a respectable following. But they both had to start somewhere. Every established playwright was once an untested one where the theatre had to take a gamble and hope for the best. Live’s last gamble was Zoe Cooper with Nativities, which was sadly a disappointment. So now, step forward Paddy Campbell with Wet House. Like Nativities, this is a play largely drawn from personal experience. But whilst Nativities tried to make an interesting story out of office politics – not an easy choice of topic, it must be said – Wet House dwells on the more interesting, and much darker, topic of a hostel-cum-scrapheap for incurable alcoholics.

There is a cast of six: three care workers and three of the many residents. Helen (Jackie Lye) is a jaded care worker disillusioned by a management that cares more about targets than people. Mike (Chris Connell) is an equally jaded care worker and ex-squaddie, who thinks this whole thing is a waste of time. Enter new recruit Andy (Riley Jones) in an unplanned change of career direction after buggering up his arts history degree. Probably the most accurate description given of the place was “like Dignitas, but takes longer, and without the dignity”. But Mike is the sort of ex-squaddie who spent little time promoting peace and understanding in warzones and a lot of time dangling IRA suspects out of helicopters, and he takes his style with him to the Wet House. When a silly mistake by Andy provides Mike with an opportunity to inflict his DIY justice on a sex offender resident, Andy’s life progressively becomes unbearable.

Paddy Campbell does a fine job at creating a very convincing portrayal of a hostel gone wrong, helped a lot by three excellent performances from the three alcoholics (Joe Caffrey, David Nellis and Eva Quinn). And the great thing about this – praise the lord – is that we finally have a new writer who is not afraid to mix comedy and drama. One thing I’ve seen in common throughout new writing companies is that there is very little comedy (except for wry comments about local things), as if this is a poor cousin to “proper” theatre. (Lee Mattinson mixed comedy and drama quite well in Chalet Lines, but he’d already had a successful debut and was in a better position to do his own thing.) A more cautious writer might have shied away and thought that jokes would be inappropriate in such a tragic situation, but on the contrary, it’s moment like these that help you understand characters and care for them. Credit to Live for appreciating this.

It’s a good début from a new writer to Live, so it’s with some regret that I have to say that this play, although promising, missed several opportunities to be better. The problem with this play is the same problem that many Live plays have – lack of story, and in this case, very little to keep the audience guessing. It was fine to build the first act up to the bit where Mike exacts his revenge on the nonce, but it was so obvious from the start that Mike’s a nutter that it wasn’t hard to guess what would happen. After the interval, I, and presumably everyone else, wanted to know first an foremost what would become of this terrible act – but this only made up a small part of the second act. Most of the play was day-by-day drudgery. Now, one response to this might be that this is exactly the purpose of the play, to show what life is like for both the alcoholics and the carers, rather just a vehicle for a story. And that’s a perfectly reasonable response – but the best plays do both at the same time.

What is particularly frustrating is this play had a number of things in common with Nativities – and not good ones. Most plays have one or two scenes per act. Wet House and Nativities both had lots of scenes in each act, and it didn’t do the play any favours. Long scenes are good in playwriting because it allows you to manage the tension well, building up to a mini-climax at the end of each scene. Numerous scene changes make this difficult as they break the momentum of the play every ten minutes. There are ways of preserving momentum and tension between scenes, but not when each scene change involves a wait whilst they rearrange the furniture. I also felt this play, like Nativities, passed up a lot of opportunities for characters to change – one of the most important building blocks in a good play. Even when characters can’t change – and Mike probably was irredeemable from start to finish – it would have helped a lot to have not given away 80% of character traits in the first scene.

It may seem daft to obsess over similarities with another play written by another writer over a year ago, and normally I wouldn’t do this. But when theatres such as Live spend so much time developing relationships with new writers, I can’t help but wonder if their influence seeps through and stands to make different writers stylistically identical. It will be disappointing if this is the case, because these mistakes – plays that don’t develop tension and characters that don’t change – are things that I and others were warned never to do in the Live Writers’ Group. But, for all of the work Live done in identifying and promoting new writers, I wonder if that they are, in part, nudging these writers in the wrong direction. I’m not privy to the inner workings of Live so I might be wrong, but they are my misgivings.

However, though Wet House may have some of the wrong similarities with Nativities, it is doubtless the better play. It has gone down well with the national press, so Paddy Campbell will doubtless be coming back with a follow-up before long. And this is where I think the next big challenge lies; there’s nothing wrong with writing about what you know, but you can only do that a finite number of times before you run out of life experiences to write about. Where you go from there is the big question.

For Paddy, I have one piece of advice – well, two if you count my controversial tip about knowing when to listen to respected professionals and when to ignore them (I will come back to that another day). Apart from that, my tip would be to try to put yourself in your audience’s shoes. This means pretending you know nothing about your own play – no idea how the story develops, no idea how what the characters are like, nothing. What will grab their attention first? What subtle twists will they notice? Will they think “I wonder what happens next?” And that is a hundred times easier said than done. But anyone who can crack that is on to a winner.

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