“How is it possible we shared the same womb”
Neil LaBute’s latest play In A Forest, Dark and Deep, is receiving its world premiere at the Vaudeville Theatre on the Strand, showing his willingness to mix things up from London to New York, off-West End to West End – his last new play to show here was at the Almeida in 2009, In A Dark, Dark House. The bigger house here might also be a reflection of the bigger anticipated box office as the two-hander features the return to the London stage for Olivia Williams and a rare foray into theatre for Matthew Fox, now released from the purgatory that was Lost. (This was a preview show that I saw, which coincided with a What’s on Stage outing that some friends were attending.)
This is a twisty thriller in which the erudite Betty has called upon her carpenter brother Bobby to help her shift lots of books left by a student tenant in her lakeside chalet, beautifully designed over two storeys by Soutra Gilmour, despite their tetchy relationship. What unfolds, as a storm blows outside, is a tempestuous portrayal of these two completely different siblings who cannot resist baiting each other even as adults, but our preconceptions are then over-turned as pieces of information come to light which throw a whole new light on just what is going on this cabin.
What brings the show to life is the quality of the performances and the way in which the sibling rivalry is brought to vivid life by Williams and Fox as the twists and turns force constant reassessment of these characters. His Bobby is swaggeringly confident, blue collar through-and-through with his questionable attitudes on women, blacks, gays, anything different and seemingly never a hairs-breadth away from exploding with violence. Yet there’s a forceful persuasiveness to the way in which he adheres to his own code and something quite moving in the way in which he decides what is most important to him.
Williams’ emotionally fraught Betty has the tougher job with a much more elusive character who is never quite what she seems, allowing the actress to really work the manipulations and desperation of this well-to-do college lecturer, undone by…well, I can’t tell you what! But she is fantastic throughout and there’s a delicious reality to the way in which these siblings relate to each other, press each other’s buttons and suggest years of familiarity in both easy exchanges about music and uneasy ones confronting the events of their past.
Ultimately, it didn’t feel like there was quite enough here to really make an exceptional piece of drama, even at this late preview. The trail of revelations is somewhat predictable with disappointingly obvious clues being offered up and there’s not quite enough psychological intensity to take us deep or dark enough into the woods as one might have expected. But powerful performances with this tightly-wound family dynamic and some cracking dialogue make this a solidly 3 star entertaining evening.
Running time: 100 minutes (without interval)
Programme cost: £3.50
Booking until 4th June
Note #1: lots of bad language, flashing lights and the music that plays before the curtain rises is rather loud (and don’t ask the ushers if they can turn it down, they can’t!)
Note #2: I was lucky enough to sneak into the What’s On Stage conducted Q&A after the show, with Williams, Fox and LaBute which was really good fun. Olivia Williams revealed a wickedly dirty sense of humour, Matthew Fox told of how his experience growing up in Oregon meant he could relate somewhat to the characterisation here and Neil LaBute was brutally and beautifully unapologetic, and rightfully so, about the subject matters for his work, pointing out how little of interest there would be in exploring well-adjusted people. It does seem to me that people label LaBute a little too easily as a misogynist, not separating playwright from his work, and in any case, I’d argue that men don’t come off too brightly in this one either.