Hampstead Theatre does it again with another powerful, thought-provoking transfer after last month’s Four Minutes Twelve Seconds. Heather and Carla went to secondary school together about 20 years ago, live in the same town, but have little else in common. Heather comes from a stable, middle class family, is now married and lives quite comfortably. Carla is working poor, pregnant with her fifth child, and has a drunkard for a husband. Both had a terrible time in high school: Carla came from an abusive home, and Heather became one of a Carla’s targets after a brief friendship in year 7. They haven’t seen each other since school, but out of the blue, Heather asks Carla for coffee and makes her a surprising offer in Morgan Lloyd Malcolm’s both horrifying and enthralling The Wasp.
Myanna Buring as Carla and Laura Donnelly as Heather are an electric pair, as they should be in this relentless two-hander with sudden plot twists that keep the audience guessing. Their characters’ contrast naturally creates tension anyway, and the story generates even more. Most of the play is a hotbed of tension. The layers of lies and manipulation and abrupt reveals are surprising; there are audible gasps from the audience at certain key moments. The script has a fairly formulaic structure, but it’s the content that surprises. Albee’s Zoo Story, Miller’s The Crucible and most of LaBute’s work appear to influence. The characters’ behaviour is shocking, but the realisation that this could be anyone we know, or ourselves, uncomfortably resonates within.
Though there are a lot of big social and psychological issues presented: revenge, infidelity, class difference, abuse, rape and infertility. It doesn’t feel excessive to conflate them, but aids in creating complex characters that feel like genuine people backed up by Buring and Donnelly’s performances. This toxic cocktail of topics emphasises just how easy it is to cause lasting emotional damage in someone unintentionally, be it a family member, friend, partner or acquaintance. Kids especially: we all had tough times at school and treated each other badly but children are so self-absorbed (the ability to empathise is the last part of the human brain to develop) that they don’t often realize the consequences of their actions. And this is why each and every one of us is the hot mess we are, because of how we were treated by others when we were younger. It doesn’t take much more on top of all the baggage we already carry to send us over the edge, and that message resounds loud and clear through the women’s past and present actions that slowly unravel in the intimate Trafalgar 2.
David Woodhead’s set similarly beds in the horror of the characters’ actions. Benign, commonplace objects become aids for capture in his construction that emulates life. There’s an overly lengthy set change, but the transformation from outside a dingy café to Heather’s sitting room is as big a difference as the two women are to each other. The detail and naturalistic design make the story feel all the more like real life, an effective and powerful choice when simplicity and abstraction are the more common styles.
The Wasp presents the capacity for evil within each of us whilst challenging social stereotypes and making powerful comment on how we treat our fellow human beings. Outstandingly committed performances endowed with energy and high emotion and Lloyd Malcolm’s script create a disturbing landscape, disguised in the routine of day to day life, that can be revealed in a moment.
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