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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The Sad Part Was: this story collection puts the real Bangkok on display

Thai author Prabda Yoon descends into the voices and minds of a small cast of characters.

In Bangkok’s budding literary scene, Prabda Yoon sits at the centre. Born in 1973, he’s the scion of a well-known family (his father Suthichai Sae-Yoon is the co-founder of the Nation newspaper) and is known in Thailand as not only an enfant terrible of letters but as an illustrator, screen-writer and director (his first film, Motel Mist, was shown at European festivals in 2016).

His reputation rests mainly on a collection of short stories published in 2000 entitled in Thai Kwam Na Ja Pen, roughly translated as Probability, and it is from this early collection that most of the stories now collected in The Sad Part Was are derived. Translated with cool elegance by Mui Poopoksakul, they are among the first modern Thai stories to be published in the UK.

As Poopoksakul points out in her afterword, she and Yoon are the products of similar backgrounds and epochs: upper-middle class children of Bangkok who came to consciousness in the late Eighties and Nineties. Often foreign-educated, fluent in English and conversant in global pop culture and media – Yoon did a stint at Parsons in New York after prep school at the Cambridge School of Weston – this new generation of Thai writers and artists were born into a society changing so fast that they had to virtually invent a new language to transcribe it.

In The Sad Part Was, the result is stories that one could glibly label as “post-modern” but which, in reality, perfectly match the qualities of the megacity where they are set. Bangkok is infamously mired in lurid contradiction, but it’s also a city of subtle and distorted moods that journalism and film have hitherto mostly failed to capture. The whimsical and playful surfaces of these stories have to be read against the high-octane anxieties and surreal dislocations of what was, until recently, one of the fastest-growing cities in the world.

Yoon uses the short form of the ten-page story to descend into the voices and minds of a small cast of characters: a schoolgirl and a beautiful female teacher who form a platonic lesbian infatuation while riding a daily bus in “Miss Space”; a couple making love during a thunderstorm whose activities are interrupted by the dismantling of two giant letters, which fall onto their roof in “Something in the Air”; a young man who meets a mysterious older man in Lumpini Park called Ei Ploang, who forces him to consider the intertwined nature of good and evil. In “Snow for Mother”, a mother waits for her little boy to grow up so that she can take him to Alaska to experience the real snow, which he never knew as a little boy in the tropics.

In “The Sharp Sleeper”, a man named Natee obsesses over losing his shirt buttons and is led into a strange reverie on the nature of dreams and the competing qualities of red and yellow pyjama shirts (Thailand’s political culture is riven by two parties popularly known as Red and Yellow Shirts). The commentary slips into effortless sarcasm:

Natee has proudly worn the red pyjama shirt several times since then, and his dream personality hasn’t altered at all. On the contrary, the shirt has encouraged him to become a man of conviction in his waking life. As to what those convictions were supposed to be, Natee wasn’t quite sure. But it was safe to say that a night shirt so principled wouldn’t drop a button so easily.

Since these stories were written, Bangkok’s political schizophrenia has lost its former air of apathy and innocence, but Yoon’s tone is quietly prescient about the eruption of violent irrationality a few years later. It’s a reminder how precious the subtlety of fiction is when set against the shrill certitudes of activism and reportage.

My favorite story here is “Something in the Air”. Its dialogues are written with hilariously archaic, bureaucratic formality, while delving into the disorientation of sexual and romantic hopes in the present century. After the couple’s love-making is interrupted, the young man suggests insolently to the woman that they resume in the open air, exposed to the furious elements. She agrees. They then notice that a dead body is lying on the roof nearby, crushed by the giant letters.

While waiting for the police to arrive, the woman sits quietly and describes her future, a happily married future in which her current lover will play no part whatsoever. He listens in melancholy astonishment until the couple are called to give their testimonies about the dead man. The officers then suspect that the couple themselves have done something scandalous – and so, stung by shame, the woman considers breaking off the relationship and setting in motion her own prophesy.

The Sad Part Was is unique in the contemporary literature of Bangkok – it doesn’t feature bar girls, white men, gangsters or scenes redolent of The Hangover Part II. Instead it reveals, sotto voce, the Thai voices that are swept up in their own city’s wild confusion and energy, and it does so obliquely, by a technique of partial revelation always susceptible to tenderness.

Lawrence Osborne is a British novelist living in Bangkok. His next book, “Beautiful Animals”, will be published by Hogarth in August

The Sad Part Was
Prabda Yoon
Tilted Axis Press, 192pp, £8.99

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder