Constellations last year, his latest comedy-drama The Same Deep Water As Me goes for a less lyrical, starker subject matter in the world of "no win, no fee" ambulance-chasing lawyers. But in John Crowley's premiere production at the Donmar it winds up being a rather flat affair. His escape to London having ended in ignominy, Andrew (Daniel Mays) has returned to his home town of Luton where he's joined Barry (Nigel Lindsay) in his injury-law firm. Despite the increasing popularity of this kind of lawsuit, their firm doesn't seem to be reaping the benefits, and they're desperately scrabbling for clients. So Andrew is vulnerable to getting sucked into a plan to defraud big corporations by staging repeated car accidents and suing for imaginary injuries, in the knowledge that deep-pocketed companies would rather settle than go to court.
But it's in what seems one of the less contentious cases that the details don't add up and the supermarket they're trying to defraud decides to call their bluff and go to trial. Having thought he'd got to his lowest point, Andrew finds himself at risk of losing even more.
There's some good actors in The Same Deep Water As Me - Monica Dolan as a ball-breaking lawyer representing Tesco, Niky Wardley as Jennifer, an ex of Andrew's unwittingly caught up in the scam, Peter Forbes as a caustic judge and a brief but funny turn from Isabella Laughland, earning a round of applause tonight as the van driver in the dock, all make good contributions, and Payne's ear for dialogue is still quirkily witty: My favourite line being Jennifer's rather baffling "I feel like I've been caught wanking at the vet's." But these individual great moments jump out of a show that doesn't really hold together, especially story-wise, where the play is a mass of loose ends and underdeveloped relationships. With the scenes taking place months apart from each other, there's moments like the throwaway reference to the insurance scam having escalated into a huge business, but we learn nothing more of this as we go back to the simple case that will end up in court. The outcome of the case, too, makes no sense whatsoever, unless we're in a Hollywood universe where impassioned speeches automatically override common sense.
And the play disastrously opts to end on an emotional scene between Andrew and Jennifer, a relationship that's been touched on but never developed, so it comes across as a totally unearned attempt to move the audience. It's especially obvious as it comes after the point where the play should have ended, a scene between Andrew and Barry: It's the only relationship that comes close to having any meaning, Nigel Lindsay injecting a bit of battered dignity to his character that's the closest we get to someone to root for. Payne has said the title is meant to suggest that these characters aren't to be judged, they're in the same situation everyone else is at the moment, but it's hard to feel that when there's little for the audience to sympathise with.
And I have to question how much of the blame Daniel Mays has to take for this, and whether he's an actor who's been overrated, by me included. Seeing him play the umpteenth everyman who turns out to be thoroughly unsympathetic, I can't help but wonder if it's the characters who are unlikeable or the actor. Are playwrights really churning out endless repellent underdog roles for Mays to get typecast in, or would another actor have found a humanity in these characters that he's not bringing out?
With Payne becoming quite prolific (his next premiere has already been announced as the final show in The Shed) it's almost inevitable some of the work will be weaker, and for me The Same Deep Water As Me has to fall into this category. It's still watchable, but especially in Crowley's rather stark production it feels like a sitcom that's missing a few punchlines. There's some really outstanding moments, and the latest in the explorations of what kind of design the Donmar stage can handle - this time Scott Pask's set provides a simple but convincing change from grubby office to courtroom and back - but nothing to care about.
The Same Deep Water As Me by Nick Payne is booking until the 28th of September at the Donmar Warehouse.
Running time: 2 hours 15 minutes including interval.