Brighton Fringe 2019
Directed by Kevin Nash, and produced by Eugene Doyle, Morgan Lloyd Malcolm’s now famed for Emelia, The Wasp premiered at the Hampstead Theatre in January 2015. It transferred to Trafalgar Studios in January 2016. Designed and lit by Nash and Purple Playhouse.
Directed by Kevin Nash, and produced by Eugene Doyle, Morgan Lloyd Malcolm’s now famed for Emelia, a superb play premiered at the Globe in 2018 and transferring earlier this year to the West End. This really is a worthy precursor.
Amy Coutts’ Heather has made a success of her life. Gala Orsborn’s Carla is out of cash, willing to take part in an unusual proposition. The women meet up for the first time since leaving school: intrigue and manipulation begins. Carla’s already pregnant with her fifth. Twins she reckons.
The Wasp by Lloyd Malcolm premiered at the Hampstead Theatre in January 2015. Hailed as a psychological thriller it’s more than that yet fulfills this consummately – as anyone who saw it at Hampstead or on its transfer to Trafalgar Studios in January 2016 will confirm. An all-female Sleuth might furnish one parallel.
The seven-months bump prosthesis is remarkably convincing – just one detail that marks this Purple Playhouse as a full-scale professional production, not an hour-slot Fringe work. It runs for 85 minutes continuously in three scenes.
Designed and lit by Nash and Purple Playhouse, Nash’s set – a café with minimal table, then a living room with pictures walled behind and one desk with a laptop and a large wasp framed, stage let is balanced by a door at the back of stage right. It’s the back door Carla chooses to come in, for reasons she explains. It’s slightly larger in fact than the Trafalgar’s Studio 2.
Anyone seeing this again will be struck at how close to its original casting these two actors have intuited these roles. That’s not necessary of course but Lloyd Malcolm’s writing suggests similar responses from casting to performance. And both these actors add a new intensity.
Carla’s language is clipped and acutely observed, equally refusing Heather’s unpleasantly articulate assumptions, casually lumping infidelity and failure to nappy-change with wife-beating, something Carla experienced in her childhood but won’t brook now. Challenged by Carla Heather rejoins unforgivably: ’That is acceptable to some… It’s basically normal. For them.’ Carla, no ‘them’ ripostes ‘My bloke lays one finger on me or the kids and he’s out… what are you going on about?’
What Heather’s going on about is the fact that unlike Carla, her moving-on has all been on the outside: she’s still sixteen and wants to drag Carla back there too. It’s an intimately vicious two-hander, Heather’s hyper-articulate rationalising answering every angle that might be aimed at her personal solution.
Coutts conveys Heather’s easily-triggered defences, her gleaming carapace and deep insecurity, indeed wound she says Carla inflicted twenty years ago. Lloyd Malcolm’s neatly prescriptive suggestion that the more manicured middle class woman has trouble conceiving whilst the working class Carla has none might seem a sad cliché out of Blood Brothers, but there’s a reason Carla might remember and this is why Lloyd Malcolm digs deeper than even that musical on class motivation and backstory.
Carla at first thinks Heather’s proposing she be a surrogate. But Heather, who toys wit that, offers something else. She remembers how Carla (as we discover, after abuse from her father) takes a pigeon apart. Why not kill Heather’s lying husband Simon? Heather’s created a fake account and seduced her own husband who now confides he can’t stand Heather and fantasies over her – the fantasy Heather’s created – when they have sex. And that’s not the only fake account Heather’s created. Two more in fact.
Carla rejects the offer and as she leaves you see Coutts smugly counting to five on her fingers as she waits for Carla to register the cash possibilities and return. Heather’s been shadowing Carla. She knows Carla’s man is in huge debt, how she veers between love and fury for her four children, how she might do anything. The only woman Heather’s met in her strange world who’d murder.
Now we’re in Heather’s neat house, with Simon’s dead insects mounted everywhere. There’s a wasp that burrows into tarantulas, keeps them alive whilst it lays eggs and the pupae burst out. Simon’s only average at anything, including this. But Heather springs more revelations too.
And there was that time when – suddenly ceasing her friendship with Heather – Carla knocked her down in the corridor so badly Heather couldn’t see for two weeks out of one eye. Carla says sorry, yet again but then Heather springs nasty surprise. Then a horrific narrative of what Carla did next which affects Heather even now, with Carla’s ‘good girl’ still ringing in her ears; another startling revelation that takes Carla’s dream of escaping her life brutally away from her; an apparent confession, then a final proposition. Even at the very end there’s two more surprises.
It’s a masterly psychological twister, but far more than that, The Wasp explores levels of persecution and grief, introverted fury and damage wrought in youth that refuses resolution. It’s ferociously articulate within the limits of an articulate character, with plenty of ripostes.
Orsborn’s clipped Carla is savagely good, her every inflection watchful, suspicious, whiplash reactive and it transpires flecked with recall at Coutts’ Heather. But she enacts fear and suffering, even tears and a red faced terror better than even the original. Like the original Carla, Osborn’s blonde hair is scraped up, a coping housewife with no time for glamour. Coutts is svelte. Coutts conveys every thought in her tightly-reined headspace, with a sharply-sculpted set of body movements born of someone who’s gone to yoga and drunk chamomile all their lives. Coutts can express sudden emotive bursts giving way to manic laughter; whilst Orsborn’s more overt savagery slips into other registers altogether.
The two actors make the play seem even finer than it was. It’s not often a Brighton revival can top a London production, but having seen both it’s easy to confirm that’s the case here. This is more than a first-rate revival. It’s outstanding. See it.