Just over a year ago, I had absolutely no idea where the Hampstead Theatre was – which is a bit silly, as I’ve spent the last 5 and a bit years obliviously wandering past it whilst out visiting properties for work. Plonked practically on top of Swiss Cottage tube station on the Jubilee line, it’s easily accessible for those brave enough to venture beyond the confines of the West End. But in the year and a bit that I’ve been going to the HT, I’ve only seen stuff in their upstairs theatre – all of it good quality, so I had high hopes for their downstairs studio space.
The Wasp certainly didn’t disappoint. Heather and Carla haven’t seen each other since school and their lives have taken wildly different paths. Carla is living with a man twice her age and pregnant with her fifth child, while Heather and her husband are struggling to conceive their first. When Heather offers Carla a substantial sum of money that she cannot afford to refuse, we have the perfect ingredients for a textbook tale of surrogacy and one woman doing a selfless act for another. Cue hilarity, snappy one-liners and possible drama when Carla refuses to hand over the baby.
But that’s not where this play goes.
Writer Morgan Lloyd Malcolm has conjured something far darker than that. A script that is both deliciously malevolent and wildly unpredictable. Loaded with red herrings, we are lulled into the belief that the narrative is heading off in a particular direction, then without warning, it lurches off in another. With many thrillers, it’s all too easy for the writing to drop a few clues for that satisfying “I knew that was going to happen!”, but instead this one routinely pulls the rug from under your feet and leaves you kicking yourself that you hadn’t spotted the plot device. It takes a little while to construct the story, but once it gets going, it’s 90 minutes of twisty turny malice.
MyAnna Buring (Carla) has her slovenly character down to a tee. Yet behind the swagger and the tough talk are flickers of a troubled childhood, of potential that never had the opportunity to be realised, of problems taken out on others. By contrast, Sinéad Matthews (Heather) is middle class, indulged but not spoilt, yet unaware of her patronising streak – swamped in her capacious afghan, she is the epitome of well-meaning benevolence.
Under the direction of Tom Attenborough, the balance of power seesaws between the two women as each pushes their own agenda without ever straying into melodrama. We explore long-held grudges and whether victimising someone is necessarily worse when it’s either spontaneous or pre-meditated. As we piece together the true motives, the reality of the situation becomes ever more chilling and psychological. The knot in my stomach got tighter – half of me wanted to run out the theatre and the other half was rooted to the spot and fascinated to find out what would happen.
The danger with any such situation is that it falls into stalemate and gets trapped in a loop. But this play is far cleverer than that – the final resolution slots neatly into place and leaves the audience aghast.
The Wasp is playing until Saturday 7th March at the Hampstead Theatre, Eton Avenue, Swiss Cottage, London, NW3 3EU. This production is 90 minutes with no interval. Contains strong language. Cigarettes are smoked during the course of the play. For tickets and more information go to http://www.hampsteadtheatre.com/whats-on/2015/the-wasp/