The Same Deep Water As Me at the Donmar Warehouse: Deep waters that run shallow

Nick Payne's new play The Same Deep Water As Me fails to capture its audience's sympathies, writes Andrew Billen.

The Same Deep Water As Me
Donmar Warehouse, London WC2

When, in his 1995 book, The State We’re In, Will Hutton popularised the ideal of the “stakeholder” society , he was not dreaming about a nation of gamblers. Yet count the bookies on even the poorest of Britain’s high streets and you’ll see this is what we have become; and if we believe Nick Payne’s new play, The Same Deep Water As Me, the greatest casino of all is the civil court. Here, under the no-win, no-fee arrangements persistently advertised by solicitors on afternoon television, accident “victims” can make a claim without risking any financial stake at all. Ever enterprising, modern Britain has in response generated a veritable industry of fraudulent claims from staged car accidents.

There are a couple of possible plays to be made out of this. One could be a satire on the legal system, a modern-day Measure for Measure. Another might be a state-of-thenation piece. The Same Deep Water tries to be both but does not work very well as either – a verdict I know will disappoint the many fans of Payne’s Constellations last year.

In the opening scene, set in the Luton office of the fictional Scorpion Claims, the designer Peter Mumford well evokes how literally low-rent the bottom tiers of the law are. The Donmar’s stage has never looked more narrow: beneath its low ceiling skulk a filing cabinet, a dusty pot plant and a couple of wonky swivel chairs – this is a place fit for the Gregg’s take-outs frequently referred to. For reasons not explained, Scorpion Claims is down on its uppers and desperate for trade.

An ethical rather than personal dispute ensues between the firm’s owner, Barry, played by a haunted Nigel Lindsay, a man who takes refuge in obscure brands of tea, and his number two, Andrew, the always intriguing Daniel Mays – an actor whose long, thin body, topped by a puzzlement of wiry black hair, looks determined to resolve into an exclamation mark. Barry identifies with the Truth, or as near as his profession allows itself to get to it. Andrew aligns himself towards profit, or as near as Scorpion Claims will get to that.

The piece, energetically directed by John Crowley, reaches a climax in Luton County Court, where Kevin, the lying, swearing, sweaty, working-class claimant who has tempted Andrew into his scheme to defraud insurance companies, is torn apart by a forensic middle-class lawyer, Georgina, and then redeemed by a speech of unlikely fluency from his generally unimpressive solicitor. It is no A Few Good Men but it is a decent scene further enlivened by the passionate truth-telling of the van driver (played by the surprisingly well-named Isabella Laughland) who hit Kevin’s alleged car. The judgement, delivered by a suave judge with a billowing handkerchief – a great cameo from Peter Forbes in one of two parts – beggars credibility, but never mind.

Where the play is more disappointing is in its general picturing of society’s degene - ration. Marc Wootton wolfishly plays Kevin, a school contemporary of Andrew’s, as a manic Caliban. Kevin recalls watching “oldschool” porn with Andrew and then, when they’re discovered by his mother, leaping “like a fucking lemur, like a fucking leopard” to rip the VHS from the video player. But this elemental performance denies us the chance to see Kevin as a victim of capitalist greed, a consumer in go-faster stripes stranded on a recessional lay-by on the look for a quick way out. When much later he describes his falseclaims business as having the potential to become “the fucking Lemur [nice connective pun] Brothers of Luton”, it is not enough to link his scam with this era’s big-time fraudsters, “the same deep water” we are all, I suppose, drowning in.

Payne, in fact, takes a surprisingly conservative view of outcomes by placing his characters in a haphazard world. Andrew’s desk fan packs in and starts up again inexplicably (unlike the judge’s, which is selfishly pointed at himself). A power cut pitches the characters into the dark, and we think a bill has not been paid, but the lights go back on. Justice is arbitrary rather than weighted in favour of power. The final, unsatisfactory scene, almost a coda, has Andrew recalling a childhood accident in which he trod on a nail. His father made it better by staring at him with loving authority. No compensation culture back then, then.

The mention of the father is not arbitrary. Consigned to a nursing home, he has been a ghostly presence in Andrew’s story, but so ghostly that we have little idea of what he was like. The same goes for the rest of Andrew’s backstory: his hinted-at disgrace in a London solicitor’s firm and his adolescent romance with Kevin’s wife, Jennifer, a relationship the script takes little trouble to rekindle. As a result, we have scant emotional stake in Andrew, let alone his clients. This play’s deep waters run too shallow to carry us very far.

Runs until 28 September. For details visit: donmarwarehouse.com

Nigel Lindsay, Daniel Mays and Monica Dolan in The Same Deep Water As Me. Photograph: Johan Persson.

Andrew Billen has worked as a celebrity interviewer for, successively, The Observer, the Evening Standard and, currently The Times. For his columns, he was awarded reviewer of the year in 2006 Press Gazette Magazine Awards.

This article first appeared in the 19 August 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Why aren’t young people working

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So much for "the table never lies" – data unravels football's biggest lie of all

London side Brentford FC are using data to rethink the usual football club model.

It’s a miserable day for practice, the rain spitting down on the manicured training pitches of Brentford Football Club. Inside a tiny office marked Director of Football, Rasmus Ankersen is waiting for his phone to ring. The winter transfer window closes in 11 hours and there are deals to finalise.

Ankersen, a 33-year-old Dane with a trim beard and hair pulled into a small ponytail, seems relaxed. Perhaps he knows that the £12m transfer of the striker Scott Hogan to Aston Villa is as good as done. Or maybe his comfort comes from Brentford’s performance this season. The small west London club sits safely in the top half of the second tier of English football – at least according to management’s own version of the league table, which is based on “deserved” rather than actual results. Officially, on 31 January, when we meet, the team is 15th of 24.

“There’s a concept in football that the table never lies,” says Ankersen, whose own playing career was ended by a knee injury in his teens. “Well, that’s the biggest lie in football. Your league position is not the best metric to evaluate success.”

Brentford are an outlier in English football. Since the professional gambler Matthew Benham bought a majority share in 2012, they have relied on the scientific application of statistics – the “moneyball” technique pioneered in baseball – when assessing performance.

The early results were positive. In 2014, Brentford were promoted from League One to the Championship and the next season finished fifth. That same year, Benham’s other team, FC Midtjylland, which is run on similar principles, won the Danish Superliga for the first time.

Yet in 2016 Brentford slipped to ninth. Despite the disappointing season so far, Ankersen insists the strategy is the right one for “a small club with a small budget”.

Underpinning Brentford’s approach is the understanding that luck often plays a big part in football. “It is a low-scoring sport, so random events can have a big impact,” Ankersen says. “The ball can take a deflection, the referee can make a mistake. The best team wins less often than in other sports.”

In a match, or even over a season, a team can score fewer or more than its performance merits. A famous example is Newcastle in 2012, says Ankersen, who besides his football job is an entrepreneur and author. In his recent book, Hunger in Paradise, he notes that after Newcastle finished fifth in the Premier League, their manager, Alan Pardew, was rewarded with an eight-year extension of his contract.

If the club’s owners had looked more closely at the data, they would have realised the team was not nearly as good as it seemed. Newcastle’s goal difference – goals scored minus goals conceded – was only +5, compared to +25 and +19 for the teams immediately above and below them. Statistically, a club with Newcastle’s goal difference should have earned ten points fewer than it did.

Moreover, its shot differential (how many shots on goal a team makes compared to its opponents) was negative and the sixth worst in the league. That its players converted such a high percentage of their shots into goals was remarkable – and unsustainable.

The next season, Newcastle finished 16th in the Premier League. The team was not worse: its performance had regressed to the mean. “Success can turn luck into genius,” Ankersen says. “You have to treat success with the same degree of scepticism as failure.”

Brentford’s key performance metric is “expected goals” for and against the team, based on the quality and quantity of chances created during a match. This may give a result that differs from the actual score, and is used to build the alternative league table that the management says is a more reliable predictor of results.

Besides data, Brentford are rethinking the usual football club model in other ways. Most league clubs run academies to identify local players aged nine to 16. But Ankersen says that this system favours the richer clubs, which can pick off the best players coached by smaller teams.

Last summer, Brentford shut their academy. Instead, they now operate a “B team” for players aged 17 to 20. They aim to recruit footballers “hungry for a second chance” after being rejected by other clubs, and EU players who see the Championship as a stepping stone to the Premier League.

It’s a fascinating experiment, and whether Brentford will achieve their goal of reaching the Premier League in the near future is uncertain. But on the day we met, Ankersen’s conviction that his team’s fortunes would turn was not misplaced. That evening, Brentford beat Aston Villa 3-0, and moved up to 13th place in the table. Closer to the mean.

Xan Rice is Features Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times