A few months ago there was a story doing the rounds from The Connection at St Martin-in-the-Fields. It advised the charitable to resist the urge to give spare change to the homeless. Doing so, apparently, would result in more harm than good. This was hard hitting stuff, asking the casual pedestrian to avoid contributing to a person's death.
Like most social issues that rile people up, it's surely no surprise that homelessness, and the substance abuse that often seems to go hand in hand with it, is not easily explained or resolved. And although it might make a passing Guardian reader feel a bit better when they toss a few quid at the disheveled heaps on the streets of London, offering some spare change is not easily reducible to a 'good' act.
Wet House, Paddy Campbell's first play, does a fantastic job of exploring these complex questions. Campbell's writing is fantastic, evoking the wit, depth of character and moral ambiguity that we've become accustomed to on programmes like The Wire or Breaking Bad.
One theme which quickly jumps out of Wet House is the institutionalised, bureaucratic and systematic thinking that can sanitise horror and grim messy reality. A wet house is a place where the homeless can go to take shelter (and crucially) have a drink. We're left in no doubt, however, that this sort of place is often nothing more than an 'elaborate exercise in box-ticking'.
Campbell is wise to get this point out of the way fast - the calamity we're witnessing isn't an issue easily blamed on any one party, department of government or institution.
From an early point in the play, then, we're left to focus on the characters on show. This is where the play is strongest. Andy acts as a naive and curious narrative eye throughout the play. Mike, a sharp witted ex-squaddie, by contrast, is a grizzled character, rich in depth; leaving us chuckling at his quick witted humour, pulling back in revulsion at his violence, or warming to his straight-forward humanity.
Wet House is often heavy going, but is a smart and funny play. And it does exactly what theatre should do - it makes you laugh out loud; it's heart wrenching; chilling; sickening and thought provoking. It never wallows in its own morally difficult themes; we're never allowed to feel too sorry for any one character, or to react too strongly against another.