Nick Payne’s ‘The Same Deep Water As Me’ (Donmar Theatre, London) – Carole Woddis.

It’s interesting how artistic directors stamp their personalities and styles on theatres.  When Michael Grandage and to an extent before him, Sam Mendes, were running the small Donmar Theatre in London’s Covent Garden, it became synonymous with West End chic.  On and off-stage.  It was the place to be seen, even the audiences looked as though they’d been hand-picked from your top drawer fraternity.

Then Josie Rourke moved in.  Rourke had been a protégé of Grandage but she had also brilliantly restored and refreshed the ageing pin-size pub theatre, the Bush on Shepherds Bush Green.  Interestingly, as soon as she was appointed and moved in to the Donmar, its physical contours seemed to change.  It seemed homier, more convivial, more welcoming.  Back walls disappeared, new carpeting appeared.

And now, in quick succession – by chance perhaps since I haven’t seen all the plays programmed by Rourke since her arrival – have come two plays that have about them a kind of `Bush’ air.  Even the audiences seem more your `normal’ every-day theatregoer than corporate sponsors par excellence.

Both Conor McPherson’s wonderful The Night Alive which finished its run at the end of July and now Nick Payne’s The Same Deep Water As Me share a similar hermetic, intimate, deceptively down-beat atmosphere.  Both are concentrated on edgy, not to say dodgy characters at the lower spectrum of society: McPherson’s Dublin set ghoulish tale with an odd-job, rag and bone man, a prostitute and a deranged boy friend.

Nick Payne’s The Same Deep Water As Me is a million miles away from his 2012 award-winning Royal Court two-hander, Constellations which focussed on bees, quantum physics, infinite possibilities and random choices.

Payne’s current constellation of characters seem far less endowed with possibilities.  Indeed positively ensnared by petty lives if nonetheless allowed a modicum of choice.  At issue here is the no-win no-fee culture that has grown up specifically around compensation claims on road accidents but more generally, Payne suggests by the end in a withering diatribe, in our society as a whole – the must-have, spend-more, conspicuous consumption opium of the people de nos jours.

This is all very appealing, as is the ever watchable Daniel Mays as Andrew, the solicitor in Nigel Lindsay’s modest, even scrubby, legal office dealing in compensation claims, trapped into unlawful scams by Marc Wootton’s monstrous Luton wide-boy and old Andrew school-mate, Kevin.  An entertaining court-room scene also enlivens part two when Kevin and his missus find themselves in court having to defend their claim for injury compensation in a falsified accident.

Around these two high points, however, there is an unusual amount of slack if pungently salty dialogue which earns some cheap laughs but also a sense of class ridicule.  Star turns from Monica Dolan as a crisply tart middle-class lawyer and Peter Forbes Judge Jessup suggest Payne’s satire is broadly aimed.  And Mays performs a minor miracle of poignancy and sympathy for his character in his final speech when Andrew’s world has all but fallen apart.  We are, suggests the title, all in this together; we’re all as culpable as he, and the monstrous Kevin.

Context, however, is paramount in theatre.  And a play that might at the Bush have burned off the stage, at the Donmar somehow feels smaller, diminished.  A curious incident of a play in the wrong theatre.

The Same Deep Water As Me  is at the Donmar to Sept 21; see

© Carole Woddis August 8, 2013.