The Furies/Land of the Dead/Helter Skelter

Neil LaBute
Dialogue Productions in association with Mercury Theatre Colchester, Yvonne Arnaud Theatre and the Bush Theatre
Greenwich Theatre and touring
(2010)

Publicity photo: the cast

Following on from Dialogue's sell out success at The Bush Theatre, land of the dead and helter skelter are joined by the British premiere of the furies to create an evening of three plays for the price of one courtesy of Neil LaBute.

The first piece, the furies, revolves around a gay couple. Barry has asked Jimmy to meet him as he has some important news; he's dying with only six weeks to live. The problem is, Jimmy can't do anything alone and brings his scowling, disapproving, apparently mute sister Jamie along for back up. Constantly interrupting their conversation, Jamie is the ventriloquist to her brother's puppet, whispering in his ear and making him say things that he perhaps would not. She is the Greek fury that the title speaks of. Conversation soon turns into argument between Barry and Jimmy, although it is Jamie who is the real instigator. Finally Barry has had enough and directs his attack at the sulking sister, who suddenly speaks in a gravelly voice as if possessed, her eyes all the while widening as she creeps around the space: "You better run, Barry," she warns. This would have been most dramatic were the play to end here, however a considerable amount of predictable dialogue follows, lessening the impact of the sudden demonic speech. Sometimes in theatre, less is more.

land of the dead features another arguing couple, this time man and women. She wants to keep the baby, he doesn't, so she agrees to go to the clinic to get an abortion. Lit in spotlights at either side of the stage the characters narrate their interwoven monologues demonstrating how mixing career and kids is never easy. Having gone through with the abortion, the woman receives a message on her mobile phone: it's her husband, perhaps they should keep the baby after all? Unfortunately it is already dead, but her husband will soon get to meet their unborn child. He works in the World Trade Centre and it is 9/11, a day of death and destruction, physical and emotional. The woman, now alone in every sense having lost two loved ones, only has the recorded mailbox message to remind her of a previous life. This is the most well written of the pieces and works dramatically as it strictly adheres to the genre conventions of monologue. Unlike the other two plays, here the characters are three dimensional, multi-layered and believable, helped mainly by the convention of monologue externalizing internal feelings.

Concluding the evening is helter skelter, another tale of an arguing couple that ends in separation and death. This plot line is evident in each of the pieces and, after sitting through two of LaBute's plays, you know exactly what is to come. It doesn't help that the actors remain seated at a table throughout their dialogue and so the play becomes static and boring. LaBute does wake the audience up at the end by having the pregnant wife stab herself in the stomach. Why does she do this? She wanted to finish the relationship spectacularly after discovering her husband has been having a six year long affair with her sister. Instead of ending the play at this dramatic moment LaBute cannot resist but overindulge in more dialogue which, once again, lessens the impact. Quite how the woman could continue to orate in such pain is baffling, as is why no-one else in the restaurant bats an eyelid when she continues to argue as blood pours out from her stomach.

LaBute wants us to believe in his 'three acts of emotional terrorism', but this is difficult when he throws in surreal endings to what have been naturalist pieces of drama up until that very last moment. He strives to 'get people laughing and then make that laugh stick in their throats', but we don't laugh as much as he wants us to as we've heard all the clichés and jokes before. It also doesn't help that such lines are delivered by caricatures and stereotypes who are difficult to empathise with because of their one dimensionality.

The constant repetition of the same ideas makes the evening feel like an end of term showcase where pupils have been given the same brief and seek to shock the teacher with the most dramatic, extreme and surreal ending possible. What these students need to learn is that there must be a reason behind every action, and a valid well-thought out one at that. LaBute states that if his laughter technique 'doesn't work, immediately kick them [the audience] in the stomach.' A kick in the stomach out of the blue to compensate for other failings? Points for dramatic impact, yes, but the out of the blue-ness highlights the lack of thought and reasoning behind such an action. One step further and we may just have seen a U.F.O coming down to whisk away one of the characters, or a blood thirsty bear wielding a chain saw.

The Muzak soundtrack only adds to the quirky and surreal nature of the evening, which in itself is a real helter skelter of dramatic forms, genres and conventions that sadly leaves the trilogy suffering from an identity crisis.

Playing until 27th February 2010 at Greenwich and then touring to ARC Stockton, Northern Stage Newcastle, Salisbury Playhouse and Harrogate Theatre.

Allison Vale reviewed this production at Bath

Reviewer: Simon Sladen