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The tarantula hawk is neither a tarantula nor a hawk; it’s a wasp, and tarantulas are its prey. It’s parasitic, one of the really nasty kinds that lays its eggs inside its victim, which remains (just about) alive until the eggs hatch, whereupon the young wasps devour the living spider as their first meal. One of those nature stories, in other words, that makes you really hope there isn’t a God. It’s also the titular metaphor of Morgan Lloyd Malcolm’s new play, a study of toxic girlhood friendships and—perhaps more interestingly—their repercussions later on in life.
The Wasp is a one-hour, two-woman play, and seeing it in Trafalgar Studios means a very intimate, black-box experience. MyAnna Buring, who plays Carla, is on stage from the moment you walk in as an audience member: heavily pregnant, chain-smoking, tapping a foot and checking a mobile phone semi-compulsively. She’s waiting for someone, and she’s not all that happy about it. The play begins as the woman she’s waiting for, Heather (played by Laura Donnelly) enters. It’s a classic mix-up, apparently—Carla’s been waiting out the back, but Heather’s been inside the tea shop all along—and it’s made even more awkward by the fact that although they clearly know each other, they’re equally clearly not close. There’s a power imbalance here already: Heather is flushed and embarrassed but self-consciously trying to be gracious; Carla is in no mood to be conciliatory. She takes control immediately: she’s smoking, so they’ll stay outside. Her hard stare just dares Heather to say something, and although Heather tries repeatedly to assert herself, there’s a middle-class weakness to her brittle cheer. She wants to be liked.
She also wants something out of Carla, and Laura Donnelly’s performance went back and forth brilliantly between an attempt at superiority and sheer grovelling. Her income bracket gives her just enough power to make a stab at being a mature adult (she repeatedly asserts that theirs is to be “a business transaction”), but every so often Donnelly would look up and there would be an old fear in her eyes. Something, we know, happened to Heather at school, and Carla was responsible for it. From the beginning, you suspect, the “business transaction” won’t stay strictly business.
Even so, the first turn that the plot takes is a bit of a shock. The second, and even the third, start to feel a bit melodramatic, and the scene of exposition—where we at last learn what happened between the two women at school—is only managed as a long monologue, which you could, if you were being uncharitable, call an info-dump. The way that Heather chooses to process her adolescent trauma, frankly, stretches credibility. It’s all the more impressive, then, that Donnelly and Buring keep up the audience’s sense of investment in the proceedings. They’re both magnetic, impossible to take your eyes off of; the staging no doubt helps, since even audience members in the back row are no more than three yards from the action. A magnificent tension keeps the second half of the play humming. Even when you know that the melodrama is ramping up, the unpredictability of it keeps you on your seat.
Equally to Lloyd Malcom’s credit, The Wasp is full of genuinely funny moments. Heather’s calm description of her husband, Simon, which turns inexorably into a full-on rant, is delivered with such virtuosic rage that it nearly brought the house down. When she has to lug an unconscious Carla into a chair, the long minutes of silence as she pants and gasps are both terrifying (what is she going to do?) and gloriously absurd physical comedy. The humour is dark and dry, but the fact that it’s punctuated with moments of real horror elevates it to a complex, disturbing experience. Expect to walk out of the theatre feeling drained, challenged—and oddly invigorated.
The Wasp continues at Trafalgar Studio 2 until Jan 16. Tickets are available from £15.