Nick Payne was the youngest ever winner of the Evening Standard Best Playwright Award for his last work, Constellations, a dazzling piece about a cosmologist and a bee-keeper whose relationship went though endless permutations of possibility in a quantum multiverse. How do you follow that? Not, it seems, by trying to up the ante on the experimentalism front.
In his new play, The Same Deep Water As Me, Payne's imagination lands back on earth with a bump in Luton and in the realistic world of dodgy insurance claims. He's written a shrewd, witty dissection of the culture of lying fostered by the no-win-no-fee deals familiar from television advertising and it's clear that he wants to turn these amusingly disgraceful minutiae into a general metaphor for the “way we live now”. That goal is never quite achieved, though, in a play whose overall impact is curiously underwhelming.
Loudmouth wideboy Kevin (hilariously portrayed by Marc Wootton) has heard all about people engineering and faking car accidents in order to trouser the compensation so he approaches old schoolfriend Andrew (Daniel Mays), a solicitor at Scorpion Claims (“Luton's final personal injuries laywers”) with a plan. And thus a scam is hatched that has to be kept well hidden from Andrew's older and basically honest partner, Barry (Nigel Lindsay). But then the whole proliferating web of deceit threatens to come unravelled when one of the claims is contested in the excruciatingly funny scene in Luton County Court where Kevin is reduced to expletive-spraying bluster by Monica Dolan's mordant defence lawyer.
Payne nails the cant of the compensation culture and those who seek to justify their attempt to make an entire living out of of the mendacity it breeds. “Big Society innit” says Kevin, who's a bit vague on the politics but, being convinced that all the supermarkets are tax-dodgers, thinks it's fair game to target their delivery vans.
John Crowley's wonderfully engaging cast make the most of the quirky humour, though this occasionally feels like padding, and do their best to disguise the fact that one or two of the key relationships are underwritten. Mays' Andrew is a compellingly uneasy chancer, with a trouble background, but the character's ethical differences with Barry are left somewhat out-of-focus as he persists in his hurtful pretence of innocence, while the climactic confrontation with Jennifer (Niky Wardley), his first love who agonisingly married the odious Kevin, comes across as a belated acknowledgement that there's been a shortage of emotional substance. The piece is at once diverting and a tad disappointing.
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