Wet House | Red Stitch Actors TheatreLeft – Dion Mills & Nicholas Bell. Cover – Nicholas Bell & Anna Samson. Photos – Jodie Hutchinson

UK writer Paddy Campbell is enjoying a monster success with his first full-length play, Wet House. Red Stitch Actors Theatre brings us the Melbourne premiere and it's a winner.

A 'wet house' is a safe house for alcholics where they can stay off the streets and drink unmolested. In theory. It's clear that Campbell has worked in a wet house himself; the sense of authenticity in the play crackles and sparks. Campbell messes with the notion of the safe space, both for his characters and the audience, with this story of institutionalised violence and cover-ups. Worker Mike is an intriguing and seductive character and Whiteley brings a feeling of cynical menace into his portrayal of the ex-squaddie (what the Brits call diggers), whose version of what's right and wrong takes him from a pragmatic mindset to actions born in a world of nightmare. Performances by Whiteley, Paul Ashcroft (Andy), Nicholas Bell (DInger), Caroline Lee (Helen), the ever-compelling Dion Mills as Spencer, and Anna Samson (Kerry) are as good as you get anywhere on stage.  Samson's intense and expressive protrayal of Kerry reminds me of performances I've seen by Kat Stewart and Alison Whyte (Stewart of course being a Red Stitch veteran). Mills's vulnerability is heart-wrenching. The play's set in the north east of the UK and the cast's tricky regional accents are totally convincing. 

Wet House is a boys' story, less is given to the female characters but, thanks be lordy, they're not patronised. It's a terrific play in terms of grappling strongly with its subject matter and clear expression of its themes. There are no good answers but this work asks good questions about social justice. However, we're left not knowing quite whose story it is, the play sits unevenly across the experiences of the newbie worker, self-confessed softy Andy, class clown Digger desperately trying to pull himself together in order to attend his daughter's 21st sober, Spencer, Helen and Kerry trying to survive, and Mike's sinister self-serving which becomes his undoing. Kerry is energetic in her self-destruction; one of the play's best scenes shows Mike's silent, understanding and loving support of Kerry when she's in a state of wretched despair. Andy's a tad under-developed, so we don't fully gun for him. Helen, the Wet House manager, is a quietly dignified character whose own story remains a mystery. 

 The play tends to grind to a halt rather than come to a properly satisfying ending. Having said that, Wet House is enjoyable, entertaining and often very funny, and the dialogue is brilliant. Drection is by Brett Cousins, impressively captaining a play for the first time. The set makes its clever use of the doors and the security camera. For those working in a care industry, Wet House offers a hilarious and accurate version of burn-out. Go see.

Red Stitch Actors Theatre presents
by Paddy Campbell

Directed by Brett Cousins

Venue: Red Stitch Actors Theatre | Rear 2 Chapel St, St Kilda
Dates: Friday 20 March – Saturday 18 April 2015
Tickets: $20 – $39
Bookings: (03) 9533 8083 | www.redstitch.net

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