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.

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How to appeal to local audiences without being lazy

Michael Chaplain’s Tyne may be popular locally but won’t have life outside of Tyneside. However, the hard work that went into this is an example for everyone else to follow.

This is one of the few plays I see where I’m not really in a position to say whether it’s any good. Tyne, Live’s contribution to the festival of the North East, is clearly aimed at the people of Tyneside, packed with stories and memories that the people of Tyneside identified with. It certainly was a box office success – almost every performance sold out – but those who’ve followed this blog will know how suspicious I am of local writing. Maybe my cynicism has been entrenched from years of the Gala Theatre’s “local” productions that weren’t even local (Durham council please take note: the people of Durham city do NOT consider themselves a suburb of Newcastle), but I’ve been very disillusioned by how formulaic a “local” play can be and still get bums on seats. The typical mediocre “local” play tends to have a very basic plot that could have been acted in 30 minutes rather than the two hours, and the rest of the time is spent talking about local references. And, worse, it always seems to be the same lazy predictable things referenced in play after play.

Well, this point of laziness is what separates Tyne from all these mediocre scripts. This play is essentially a collage of numerous stories, real and fictitious, past and present, from the banks of the Tyne. Some of the stories are passages from past local plays at Live, but much of it is local legends and even stories of ordinary people who the writer talked to. Most of these stories were things I’d never heard of, and the amount of work Michael Chaplin must have done is admirable. Thank God for a play that recognises there’s more that defines Tyneside than St. James’s Park and the Angel of the North.

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