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

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