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I didn’t know what a wet house was. It’s a hostel where those with drink and drug problems can continue to use in relative safety, for them and the community. In this hugely impressive first play by Paddy Campbell, we visit a wet house in the North East and peep into the lives of three residents and three staff.

Ex-army Mike is a bantering misogynistic bully, scarily free of repercussions. He terrorises the residents and controls his colleagues. It doesn’t take long before he’s turned new boy Andy, naive and fresh from university, into a drinking pal prepared to turn a blind eye. He sexually exploits lonely colleague Helen. Spencer, a paedophile who was himself abused as a child – his mother would sell her house keys to punters who could take their pick of her son or daughter – gets the worst of Mike’s treatment. Digger is a long-term drunk who hasn’t seen his children in years. Kerry is pregnant; she’s been exchanging sex for drugs and seems to have lost all humanity. You can see how being a ‘carer’ for these people is a tough job that messes with your head and turns you to drink, but lines are crossed unacceptably.

It’s a brilliantly structured play with strong characterisations and brittle, edgy dialogue containing much black humour. It oozes authenticity, no doubt because Campbell worked in a wet house himself. The parallels with last Thursday’s Wildfire are uncanny. That showed us another difficult job, the police, which damages too. Though it has the same hopelessness, it ends with a sliver of hope as Digger tries to clean himself up for his daughters 21st and for once everyone cares, and Mike shows us a glimmer of humanity and remorse. This is both a better play and a better production, in a more appropriate theatre.

I don’t know whether the fact this was their last show had any effect, but the six performances were all stunning. Chris Connel is extraordinary as Mike. One minute you’re laughing at his gallows humour and seconds later horrified by his verbal and physical violence. Riley Jones as Andy carefully and cleverly steers his character from charming rookie to Mike’s partner in crime. Jackie Lye’s delicate performance as Helen show she really does care and is seemingly unaffected by the cynicism and disillusionment around her. Joe Caffrey positively inhabits Digger and you so want to help him and root for him; a marvellous performance. Simon Roberts plays Spencer like a rabbit in the headlights with such realistic injuries you can’t help but wince. Finally, Eva Quinn presents us with the tragedy that is young Kerry in a performance that breaks your heart.

This is a triumph for Live Theatre Newcastle and their director, who directs this, Max Roberts. It is clearly a candidate for this year’s best new play and I can’t wait to see more of Paddy Campbell’s work. The run is now over, but keep a look out in case it turns up again as it’s absolutely unmissable.

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