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:

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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Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways: a subtle study of “economic migration”

Sahota’s Man Booker-shortlisted novel goes to places we would all rather not think about.

This summer’s crisis has reinforced the ­distinction that is often made between refugees, who deserve sanctuary because they are fleeing from conflict, and “economic migrants”, those coming to Europe in pursuit of “the good life”, who must be repelled at any cost. The entire bureaucratic and punitive capacity of our immigration system is pitted against these ne’er-do-wells and their impudent aspirations.

Sunjeev Sahota’s fine second novel, The Year of the Runaways, now shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, takes a closer look at “economic migration”. Why do people – many of them educated, from loving families in peaceful communities – leave their old lives behind and come to Britain? Are they fleeing desperate circumstances or are they on the make? When they arrive here, do they find what they were looking for? Should we welcome them, or try to persuade them to stay at home? The book illuminates all of these questions while, much to its credit, offering no simple answers.

Sahota interweaves the stories of three people whose reasons for emigrating are as individual as they are. Both Avtar and Randeep are from Indian Sikh families that might be characterised as lower-middle-class. Avtar’s father has his own small business – a shawl shop – and Randeep’s father works for the government. Both boys are educated and Avtar, in particular, is smart and motivated. But with employment hard to come by and no social security net to fall back on, it doesn’t take much to make leaving the country seem like the only option. Avtar loses his job, his father’s business is failing and he has high hopes of earning enough to marry Lakhpreet, his girlfriend-on-the-sly. Randeep’s family’s finances fall apart after his father has a psychological breakdown; their only hope of maintaining a respectable lifestyle is for their eldest son to take his chances abroad.

For Tochi, the situation is very different. He is what used to be called an “untouchable” and, although people now use euphemisms (“scheduled”, or chamaar), the taboo remains as strong as ever. He comes to Britain not so much for financial reasons – although he is the poorest of the lot – but to escape the prejudice that killed his father, mother and pregnant sister.

Tying these disparate stories together is the book’s most intriguing character, Narinder, a British Sikh woman who comes to believe that it is her spiritual calling to rescue a desperate Indian by “visa marriage”. Narinder’s progress, from the very limited horizons for an obedient young woman to a greater sense of herself as an active participant in her destiny, reminded me of Nazneen, the protagonist in Monica Ali’s Brick Lane. But Narinder is a more thoughtful character and here the Hollywood-style journey of personal liberation is tempered by a recognition of the powerful bonds of tradition and family.

Once in Britain, Avtar, Randeep and Tochi enter a world of gangmasters, slum accommodation and zero job security, with an ever-present fear of “raids” by immigration officers. They work in fried chicken shops, down sewers, on building sites and cleaning nightclubs. Health care is off-limits for fear of immigration checks. Food is basic and the only charity comes from the gurdwara, or Sikh temple, which provides help in emergencies.

Avtar and Randeep struggle to send money back home while living in poverty and squalor that their families could barely imagine (at one point, Randeep notes with understandable bitterness that his mother has used his hard-earned contributions to buy herself a string of pearls). In the meantime, their desperation leads them to increasingly morally repellent behaviour, from selfishness to stealing and worse. Even if they do eventually find a measure of economic stability in Britain, they have done so at the cost of their better selves.

It has been pointed out that the novels on the Man Booker shortlist this year are even more depressing than usual and The Year of the Runaways certainly won’t have raised the laugh count. At times I had to put it down for a while, overwhelmed by tragedy after tragedy. It was the quality of Sahota’s prose and perceptions that brought me back. He is a wonderfully subtle writer who makes what he leaves unsaid as important as the words on the page. A wise and compassionate observer of humanity, he has gone to some dark places – places we would all rather not think about – to bring us this book. Whether we are prepared to extend a measure of his wisdom and compassion to real immigrants, in the real world, is another question.

“The Year of the Runaways” by Sunjeev Sahota is published by Picador (480pp, £14.99)

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis