Like many emerging dramatists, John Webber is an actor. He doesn’t, however, simply write good parts but creates a tantalising whole. If his play relies on withheld information, it is not so much to trick us as to generate suspense and to suggest that some situations are incapable of easy resolution.
The play comprises a series of encounters between Esther, a couples counsellor herself in need of help, and two men, both played by the same actor. One of the men, Keith, is a former Essex cab driver who is rough, tough and craves company: the other, Chris, is a seemingly charming, itinerant academic. Initially, one assumes that the divorced Esther has met both men through a dating agency, but that is only true of Chris.
It transpires that Keith is a prisoner to whom Esther is compulsively drawn for reasons that gradually become clear.
Webber overdoes the arachnid analogies but he plays cleverly on our uncertainties and neatly contrasts Esther’s relationships with the two men. She seeks warmth from Chris but, since they communicate mainly by Skype, finds only evasiveness and detachment. If she is more hooked on the abrasive Keith it is because, as he says, quoting his therapist, we are “drawn to that bit of our own mess that lives in the other person”. In their across-the-table confrontations, you are also never wholly sure who is the spider and who is the fly.
Kirsty Patrick Ward’s production is suitably taut and yields two – you might almost say three – very good performances. Lia Burge captures precisely Esther’s troubled nature and quest for closure: she also demonstrates why she resents the academic’s patronising manner and why she is magnetised by the prisoner’s needy aggression. Matt Whitchurch also switches convincingly, and swiftly, between Chris’s furtive pleasantness and Keith’s surly explosiveness. There are one or two weak spots, such as the vagueness surrounding Esther’s religious upbringing, but Webber’s play kept me hooked for 80 minutes and shows a distinctly edgy promise.
• At Theatre 503, London, until 30 November.