Review of The Wasp at The Customs House, South Shields

As I made my way over the rain-glossed cobbles towards The Customs House, it struck me this was my first night at the theatre since before the pandemic.

Omicron put me off returning last autumn and winter, and pickings seemed slim over the summer.

There’s always some over-glitzed visual spectacle served up at the bigger theatres in the North East, but it’s the smaller, carefully crafted gems which tempt me out on a murky autumn evening.

This was the case with The Wasp, written by Olivier award-winning playwright Morgan Lloyd Malcolm, and described as a ‘brooding drama’ where ‘Too Close meets Fatal Attraction’.

Kylie Ann Ford as Carla (left) and Christina Berriman Dawson as Heather (right).

Here director Jake Smith gives his take on the play, starring Kylie Ann Ford and Christina Berriman Dawson as former schoolmates Carla and Heather.

Carla, expertly played by Ford, is a chain-smoking, impoverished mum-of-for with another on the way, a charmless manner and the most unflattering of wardrobes.

Meanwhile, immaculate Heather, equally well portrayed by Dawson, is a high-flyer prepared to grin through awkward conversation with her more slovenly classmate from 20 years ago – until the moment comes for her to make an unexpected proposition.

The two wonderfully conflicting characters take us on a thrilling, chilling journey, skillfully blending in dark humour, leaving the audience both laughing and gasping in the same moment.

Christina Berriman Dawson as Heather.

The Wasp draws out feelings which will be familiar to many of us on how your status at school matters little in adult life, yet the scars of cruelty, humiliation and in justice from those times can linger on for decades.

It’s a perfectly composed production from script, to set to costumes, to direction, to performances – everything clearly thought through to the smallest detail.

My former lecturer, writer Tom Kelly (who I believe was present in the audience, so I’d best credit him) once told me of the watch theory, in which the success of a production can be judged on how long it takes an audience member look at their wrist and check the time.

The theory didn’t stand true at The Wasp, however.

Christina Berriman Dawson as Heather (right) and Kylie Ann Ford as Carla (left).

I looked at my watch twice, yes, but not because I wanted the play to end. The first to confirm my suspicions there wasn’t going to be an interval, the second to wonder how they were going to wrap up the narrative without keeping the audience until midnight.

Much like Hitchcock’s Rope, which uses long, continuous shots and an almost seamless edit to build suspense, The Wasp keeps the audience trapped in the taut dialogue with no escape and little rest.

No interval, one set change, three scenes.

It’s a move which risks losing the audience, but there was little chance of that here as Ford and Dawson kept the audience in the palm of their hand until the play slammed the brakes on into a short, sharp shock of a surprise ending no one saw coming.

Christina Berriman Dawson as Heather.

Indeed, the production is littered with a number of plot red herrings as the audience is led up one road, then jerked off down another, then another, until the script forces them into that emergency stop at the end, leaving them jelly-legged as they stumble from the auditorium.

:: The Wasp runs at The Customs House until Saturday, September 24. Tickets are priced from £12.