Take a bow Paddy Campbell! There’s a standing ovation at Live Theatre for you. And every night, apparently.
Wet House is littered with superb performances. There’s a standout turn from Chris Connel as morally corrupted care worker Mike. Joe Caffrey is captivating as Dinger, a stumbling, tragic, beautifully lyrical alcoholic. Jackle Lye, David Nellist, Riley Jones and Eva Quinn are also on top form. And, as usual, Max Roberts has manufactured a very specific world with simple, effective theatrical devices.
But the blistering, frightening and comedic reality of homelessness and alcoholism, that Paddy, is in your words. Paddy who?
If you haven’t heard of him yet, you should and you will. Wet House is the kind of character driven, brutal reality check that we don’t see often enough on our stages. Set entirely inside the walls of a homeless hostel where residents are allowed to drink, it is moving, shocking and thought provoking.
I’m not going to do a traditional plot reveal here (go see it!), except to say all six characters – 3 hostel workers, 3 residents – have conflicts to face. Some try to escape the shackles of their environment, some descend deeper into the mire.But really, all you need to know is that audiences love it.
Last time we witnessed nightly ovations at Live Theatre it was The Pitman Painters. Remember what came next? National then international success, awards and sell out runs. Wet House deserves that too and…
…alright! Stop shouting at your screen! I hear you.
Yes, I’ve had the pleasure of taking part in Live’s new writing programmes. I enjoy seeing others who did the same (like Paddy) find success. And (like Paddy) I have worked in the housing and care sector. I have a natural interest in drama about the people I’ve met in my day job. All of which makes me duty bound to support Mr Campbell’s new play. That’s what you’re thinking right?
Nope. In this case I’m not blindly cheer-leading for the home team. There are bigger issues at stake.
We don’t see many homeless addicts in drama. Mostly we find them in newspaper scare stories. When they make it to fictional worlds, they are background irritants, demons, or corrupted victims. As for those paid to house and support the vulnerable, I can’t remember the last time I saw those staff given accurate representation. Social workers, the nearest equivalent, tend to play as middle class incompetents.
Fearing the worst as that’s what we usually find, I didn’t approach Wet House with rose tints. My cynic specs were firmly welded on.
I worried it would be relentless and depressing; characters without redemption, stories without hope. I’d be forced to write an uber-critical, probably sanctimonious, blog of bile.
Now I’ve seen the play, I’m tempted to offer alternative tales of people who stopped drinking. Argue that many people reconnect with their families, get back into employment, find stable homes far away from the crazy chaotic lives Wet House exposes. I could also contest that the behaviour of staff in the play would not even be contemplated in a properly managed care service.
I can do that. But I won’t. Firstly, because Wet House is a play. It is not verbatim, not documentary. Its extremes throw reality into relief. Isn’t that what theatre is for? Secondly, there is no need.
You see, as I walked out of Live Theatre’s unique main house (that corner thrust stage and the cabaret front row remain unrivaled) I reached to adjust my cynic goggles and couldn’t find them. Vanished! How did that happen?
Maybe it was the fantastic cast that did it. Joe Caffrey is instantly recognisable as a dozen people I’ve known. Chris, who I usually think of in more comic roles, is compellingly fearful. He needs to be, as Mike drives the action. Maybe it was the clever set, with CCTV monitors pumping monotonous images from the hostel. Maybe it was Max Roberts’ quality direction.
Or, just maybe, it was the script. The way the second act took time to explain the horrific violence of the first. Character histories emerge, revealing the cause of personal corruptions. Moral codes are complicated, people who seemed too far gone lend support, and crossroads are reached. Then, suddenly, young worker Andy breaks away and Dinger finds a reason to try and change his life. (Ooops, I promised not plot spoilers, couldn’t resist).
Don’t misunderstand. Despite the volume of sweet white cider sloshing round the stage, the lasting taste of Wet House is bitter. But, in flashes, humanity breaks through. Without this the play’s two key questions could easily be lost.
Those questions are: how do we care for those most vulnerable and dangerous people in society? And; just how different are “professional” carers from the people they are paid to help? I expect audiences would not consider either question if there was no possibility of change, no sense that people can be better. But there is, and for this Wet House is remarkable.
It is a writer’s skill that makes this possible.
Paddy’s play reeks of authenticity. Only someone who knows these people, has worked among them, could create such a convincingly dangerous, complex and surprisingly eloquent world. Only a playwright of real talent could grab an audience and refuse to let them look away. Believe me, there are moments you will want to!
Paddy Campbell’s Wet House shows society’s dirtiest underbelly, holds no punches and doesn’t preach. It allows people so often unheard to speak in their own voices. It holds a light to hope, forces you to keep watching and keep asking questions. Earlier this week Jackie Lye tweeted “we’re all very proud of it”. So you should be.