Red Stitch’s production of Paddy Campbell’s award-winning play Wet House asks us to consider the plight of the downtrodden. With terrific performances from the cast and a solid script, Wet House manages to hold a lovely tension between humour and tragedy, resulting in a tender and empathetic portrayal of the “hopeless cases.”
A wet house – the sole setting for the play – is a hostel that provides food, shelter and care for down-and-out alcoholics who would otherwise be homeless. Campbell’s play is anchored by the experiences of three staff members: the dignified and caring veteran Helen (Caroline Lee), the bright-eyed newcomer Andy (Paul Ashcroft), and the bitter, Olympic-level cynic Mike (David Whiteley). All three actors give solid performances, and work very well together to give the play its centre.
The play opens on Andy’s first day, with Helen reading out a laundry list of overnight incidents: someone has been arrested for shoplifting, another almost electrocuted himself after urinating on his mobility scooter, and a third resident is still missing. Such is a day in the life of the wet house. Part of you can’t blame Mike for being so apathetic.
The shenanigans of the wet house range from a joyful rendition of Petula Clark’s ‘Downtown’, during which three downcast men momentarily forget their struggles, to a brutal (offstage) beating that almost kills a resident. It is this light and shade that gives Wet House its soul.
As Andy’s stint in the wet house lengthens from a temporary post-uni gig to a dead-end ‘career’, his Pollyannaish good humour gives way to something darker. As Andy becomes more aligned with Mike, the residents are more at risk, and before long we are left asking ourselves, “is there really any difference between the lives of the carers and the lives of the residents?”
Throughout the play we meet three residents, all of who are so vulnerable and traumatised that you cannot help but want to wrap them all in your arms and rock them to sleep. Although Campbell does not deny the awful mistakes and flaws of these characters, he guides and tugs at our empathy until we are siding with characters who would otherwise seem vile and unlovable.
Anna Samson plays expectant mother Kerry with a heart-breaking mixture of anger, vulnerability and hope. Nicholas Bell’s rendering of the lovable but rowdy Dinger was played with warmth and charm, but also with lingering pathos. Dion Mills was simply superb as the new resident Spencer, who is simply a broken human being.
Direction from Brett Cousins was solid, if at times a little heavy-handed. The set, designed by Sophie Woodward did an admirable job of simulating a large, sprawling house of horrors in the tiny Red Stitch theatre, though it would have been great to see the television (showing CCTV footage) used to even greater affect.
The play draws from Campbell’s first-hand experience working in a wet house. It does dip into sentimentality at times, and also takes on an almost gothic feel when exploring some of the more abhorrent happenings of the hostel. Wet House puts onto the stage the stories of those too often forgotten, and it tells their stories with honesty and urgency. Although it is undoubtedly a confronting play, it is one that does not deny the humour and hope that underpins our shared humanity.