Why do hurt people hurt people? This is the central question in Morgan Lloyd Malcom’s play The Wasp. It’s a pretty easy question to answer, the playwright shows: because horrible things have happened to them. Because people can’t let go. Because revenge is a dish best served any which way as long as it’s served.
Heather and Carla haven’t seen each other in over a decade, and for good reason. Their lives have taken very different paths. Whilst Carla is still your Two Pints… cardboard cutout ‘slapper’, Heather is uptight, well-spoken and driven. She’s no longer the geek that Carla used to bully – or the naïve young girl Carla befriended before that. Heather is very much her own woman now, and in her element when she meets Carla one afternoon for an unexpected cuppa.
At first Carla thinks Heather wants her to give up her soon-to-be-born baby, then perhaps to be a surrogate. She soon discovers a far deeper desire Heather has: to kill her husband. To pay Carla to kill her husband. £30,000 is a lot of money, and with a fifth child on the way, Carla can’t say no.
However, things aren’t quite as they seem, and numerous twists and turns leave Carla the one in danger, and Heather – who she once tormented – with all the power. Will Heather forgive Carla, or will she reap the revenge due to her?
The Wasp is an easily endured evening but stops just a little shy of ‘enjoyable’. The play’s plot is part Doc Martin part Doctor Foster – a first draft, dark Ayckbourn that lacks dimensions but will get seats filled. The roads Carla and Heather travel down, despite their twists and turns, feel well-worn already. It’s 2017. Both Jonathan Creek and poverty porn are over. Show us something new, or if you’re sticking with this, do it in under an hour.
The Wasp has all the makings of a well-received semi-finalist to the All England Theatre Festival: well-written, generically clever but ultimately samey, offering little new and no reason for existence. It is a shame as Morgan Lloyd Malcolm’s is a talented writer. Her play Belongings was produced at the Hampstead Theatre and Trafalgar Studios in 2011 to critical acclaim and was shortlisted for The Charles Wintour Most Promising Playwright Award and the Whatsonstage.com Best New Play Award. The Wasp stings as a comparison. It is completely serviceable, which is a great disservice to her.
Anna Simpson’s direction is simple but assured, not straining to be bigger and bolder than either of the two’s relatively hum-drum existences, or the black box of the Jermyn Street Theatre. Lisa Gorgin (BBC’s White Gold, Footloose original West End cast) looks the part, as a packet-dyed blonde with scrunchie, fags and baby bump to boot. Her performance is more nuanced than her appearance. She is convincing, even when feigning chloroform poisoning.
Selina Giles (Restoration, V For Vendetta) reaches for Marcia Cross constrained perfection but lands somewhere roundabout Helen Baxendale. Giles’ false and forced niceties are ones we can all recognise from the catch ups that never should have caught up with us, however when Heather shows her true colours, Giles doesn’t quite manage to fully crack open her emotional range.
Mike Leopold’s set is the most successful part of the evening. A clever transition transforms the stage from a café patio to the Farrow & Ball fantasy of Heather’s living room. A back wall of mounted – and sweetly lit – boxed butterflies is the icing on the cake. Costumes do exactly what they say on the tin – no more, no less – and lighting and sound are naturalistic (although when will Fringe theatres stop allowing canned off-stage voices?).
Morgan Lloyd Malcom has constructed a play that many will like but few will remember. The performances are engaging and some of the writing – especially around an unforgiveable attack at the Year 9 disco – is commendable. Unlike the Tarantula Hawk that Heather mentions, however, The Wasp doesn’t burrow deep enough to leave us harrowed and hollowed upon exit. And nor does it give us anything to take away.