Every so often, planes pass overhead. A roar of engines, flying low. Simon Stephens's elliptical yet absorbingly tense new play Wastwater – directed by Katie Mitchell – is set on the peripheries of Heathrow airport.
This a darkening triptych: divided into three acts which seem, initially, unrelated. It cuts from a tumbledown farmhouse to a de-luxe hotel bedroom to a sinister haulage depot (design by Lizzie Clachan, with amazingly fleet, dreamlike switches of setting).
First, we scrutinise a twitchy teenager (Tom Sturridge) as he delays saying goodbye to his foster mother (Linda Bassett) – a kindly soul or alarmingly clingy? Next, an art-school tutor (Paul Ready) is embarking (with Jo McInnes) on an extramarital affair that proves scarier than expected. Lastly, a terrified ex-teacher (Angus Wright) is interrogated by a ruthless stranger (Amanda Hale), regarding a child-trafficking deal.
The dialogue tilts between delightful, gently satirical humour and threatening edginess. Stephens's narrative, meanwhile, keeps you guessing about what exactly his characters are up to and how they are, in fact, connected.
The combination of bold structural fractures and bit-by-bit revelations is intriguing. But what's Wastwater about, thematically? Well, it is concerned with the pull which one person can exert on another, and the urge to escape: a kind of contrary motion reflected in the rumbles of Heathrow's incoming and outward-bound flights (great soundscape by Gareth Fry). Stephens is depicting male-female relationships in different permutations, but common to all of these is a craving for love, polluted, each time, by deep anxieties, uncertainties, and guilt.
It must be said, if you want his plot lines to knit together and everything to make sense in the end, you're going to be disappointed. Wastwater remains elliptical, perhaps unsatisfyingly so. Act three is also distinctly sub-Pinter, other patent influences being Caryl Churchill's Far Away and Kevin Elyot's Forty Winks, which Mitchell staged at the Royal Court in 2004.
Nonetheless, her whole cast is riveting, sliding between naturalism and a more surreal nightmarishness. Bassett and Sturridge are affectionate and funny, as well as disturbing. Ready's and McInnes's sexually eager, panting advances and nervous retreats are intense and droll, too. And Amanda Hale – matter-of-fact but insanely weird – grills Wright with a hint of the purgatorial fiend.
Terminus by Mark O'Rowe is a trio of monologues, structurally plaited. It's staged by the dramatist himself in a grim, black chasm, with some jagged glass shards and narrow shafts of light. In this Abbey Theatre touring production, three Dubliners, named A, B and C, seem destined to cross paths as they tell the story of the fatal night they spent roving between shabby flats, seedy bars, and a darkened building site – ending up sky-high, atop a crane.
A is a teacher-turned-Samaritan wanting to atone for her bad mothering. B is a lonesome young woman; and C is a once shy but now serial-killing lothario.
Alas, O'Rowe's urban underworld morphs into a B-rate fantasy as Faustian pacts, a cohort of angels and a love-struck demon enter the frame.
This writer can certainly spin a yarn, and conjures up vivid images – not least the Gothic horror of the demon's face crawling with worms. Nonetheless, Terminus comes over as an immature work. It was first staged in 1997, two years before O'Rowe's Bush Theatre hit, Howie the Rookie. It's a mite schlocky too, with its cartoon violence, grotesques, and regurgitated Christian imagery.
The prose-poetry is playful and bold, for sure, combining modern, expletive-splattered chat with what sounds more like medieval, alliterative verse. But that becomes wearisome. At points it's sub-Beckett, rhythmically, and, indeed, not far off doggerel.
The acting is pretty good. Olwen Fouéré has a steely edge, playing A. An ageing bottle-blonde, she's tough as old boots and determined to be someone's guardian angel. Declan Conlon is smoothly, satanically nonchalant as C. But Catherine Walker, as the ill-used B, strains to animate her storytelling with agonies and urgency, hands clutching the air.
"How do I know you're not evil?" asks the young girl dancing around a strange man's bed in Freya & Mr Mushroom. She has impishly materialised out of nowhere, to his consternation. Nessah Aisha Muthy's new play is one half of a quirky, site-specific double bill – entitled Hotel Confessions – performed in a twin room in an actual hotel near London Bridge (in association with Southwark Playhouse). Punters squeeze in to snoop, 10 at a time.
Mark Carlisle has some splendidly creepy moments, as the potentially predatory Mr Mushroom, and as the ghoulish businessman in The Night in the Hotel (adapted by director Anouke Brook from Siegfried Lenz's short story) – snoring under the covers one minute, then suddenly bolt upright, complete with bowler hat and icy stare.
Generally, however, Brook's paired production is patchy. Her cranky, mid-20th century characters don't really fit the hotel's anodyne, contemporary décor. And though there's barely room to swing a cat, the dialogue is peculiarly meandering. Adventurous but not accomplished.
'Wastwater' (020-7565 5000) to 7 May; 'Terminus' (020-7922 2922) to 16 April; 'Hotel Confessions' (020-7407 0234) to 24 April
Kate Bassett will have seen it all when an animatronic pig stars in the West End musical Betty Blue Eyes
A second chance to catch Rory Kinnear's caustic, clever Prince of Denmark in Nicholas Hytner's modern-dress, often startling, Hamlet at the National Theatre (Wed to 23 Apr). Unsettling experimentalist Tim Crouch revives his intriguing account of idle gestures and stubbornness in My Arm at Leeds Met Gallery's Studio Theatre (Mon).
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