Since its inception, this theatre has been a trailblazer for new writing and was integral to giving some of the UK’s leading playwrights their first break.
But even though the plug may soon be pulled, the show must still go on – and the critical triumph of Neil La Bute’s devastating double bill is surely testimony to this theatre’s relevance and importance.
These bold, short plays will shock you and, although never written to be performed together, they are well suited companions that make for an intense hour of uncomfortable, harrowing viewing.
In Land of the Dead, written for a benefit gala a year after 9/11, a woman tells of her abortion on the day her husband is blown up in the Twin Towers.
Helter Skelter takes place at Christmas in a chi-chi New York restaurant where a heavily pregnant wife confronts her husband about his affair, with disturbing consequences.
LaBute, an excommunicated former Mormon, specialises in exposing the dark, unsavoury side of human relationships and even though you know that there will be a gruesome evisceration of the American Dream live on stage you never the less remain floored by his execution.
In his foreword to the two plays he comments that:”There is no place too dark, or too wordy that UK theatregoers won’t follow me to. and so it is, shackled to his desire to eloquently explore the underbelly, that the Bush goes with him into the black heart of the Western world.
The exceptional Ruth Gemmell plays the woman in both plays. First as a catatonic, traumatised widow and then as the heavily pregnant, frighteningly composed wife.
John Kirk, who plays the man in Land of the Dead, is a career-driven city boy, ambitious yet shallow and anxious. LaBute has an incredible ear for dialogue, each word carefully picked, each phrase carefully honed so that even in a short play, the characters live and breathe, with unwavering realism, and their patter is so well observed and draughted that it makes you wince.
In Land of the Dead, the actors break the fourth wall again and again, in an attempt to explain and makes sense of themselves and also to seek vindication of their values. This play highlights the reckless decadence, folly and options that affluence breeds, and the tragedy of the couple’s decision is captured all too poignantly in the fact that the husband’s last voicemails, that she saves, listens to and saves again ad infinitum, is his only living legacy.
The denouement in Helter Skelter is handled with aplomb and bar the savage climax, the wife’s composure and argument in the grossest of betrayals-a six year affair with her sister- constitutes a master class in confronting an adulterer. The dressing down and compassion she shows her husband, a rather limp Patrick Driver, is remarkable. She tears strips off her own naivety and his fallibility, as LaBute shreds and deconstructs the pithy phrases, clichs and aphorisms that people trot out when cornered or guilty.
Sara Perks’ set is simple compliment the dazzling word play; perfectly rectangular Perspex sheets hang from the ceiling, which stand for both skyscraper and restaurant windows, reflecting the actors and also making the audience confront themselves.
Neil LaBute is a master of unsettling and unnerving his audience, of destroying their points of reference and obliterating any kind of comfort zone; for him nothing is safe and nothing is certain, and both of these productions reveal just how much civilisation and the normality we have constructed for ourselves are simply an illusion.