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A CurtainUp London London Review
Land of the Dead/Helter Skelter

I am now confident that there is no place too dark or too wordy for UK theatregoers to follow me to. . .— Neil LaBute
Land of the Dead/Helter Skelter
Ruth Gemmell as the woman in Land of the Dead. (Photo: Nobby Clark)
I love Neil LaBute's writing. Often it's uncomfortable to watch, showing the crueler aspects of humankind but his plays always challenge me out of smugness and complacency, and engage the audience in a kind of searing morality which describes how badly we can behave to others. What is also remarkable is how often he condemns his own sex in his writing in the way that they treat women. Both Land of the Dead, which like The Mercy Seat is set in the hours around 9/11, and Helter Skelter, which played in New York as Things We Said Today, feature a woman who is pregnant. Neither was written to go with the other, but they work well in this complementary setting.

In Land of the Dead the blokeish talk of a salesman— aspiring, greedy, selfish, bragging — is juxtaposed with a beautiful, young woman faced with an unnerving choice. The man tells us where he stands in an insensitive joke, "I'm pro-choice I am . . . She can choose to keep the kid or she can choose to keep me. It's entirely up to her!" She makes the choice and we are not sure if she makes it using his criteria but she decides what she has to do. Unsupported, alone because he is out drinking with the boys (he has even taken some of the clinic fee to pay for drinks), she has to go to the clinic alone because he has a breakfast business meeting with his boss. He tells us why it's no big deal and we are revulsed. A voicemail message to her puts the bitter icing on this deadly, cruel cake and we are reminded that not everyone who died in 9/11 was a loss to humanity. As a piece it will make you think about death and suffering, those miniature acts of sadism and despair that don't make the headlines. This play lasts just 20 minutes but says so much more for its economy.

In Helter Skelter a middle class couple rendezvous on a shopping break in the city. She is heavily pregnant. He is cagey and reluctant to let her use his mobile phone when she asks. He claims he hasn't got it with him, that he left it in the hotel room, forgetting that a few moments earlier he told her he had phoned the children on it late that afternoon. She demands to know what the bulge is in his breast pocket and like an enormous zit, it is lanced. He drops the cell phone and goes through the "Now you've broken my cell" routine but she grabs it and offers to get it mended. We, the audience, guess why he is prevaricating almost immediately. How were cheaters ever exposed before the era of text messages and cell phone list displays? She slowly extracts the truth from her love rat of a husband with the precision of a micro-surgeon and the instinct of a cobra. She is carrying his third child while he makes mealy mouthed clichés about how important she is to him and asks her not to overdramatise the situation but she has other ideas inspired by figures like Joan of Arc and Medea.

Both plays together last only an hour but their impact is enormous. LaBute's writing is so vivid and meaningful, it is impossible not to continue to think about these dramas.

Ruth Gemmell is outstanding as the women. With her hair down she is sweet, innocent and possibly naive in Land of the Dead, but in Helter Skelter, in a white lace dress and heavily pregnant, she has an intelligent, knowing look as she listens to her philandering husband. She is like a bird in the way that she moves her head to take in each fresh deceit.

John Kirk largely repeats the businessman role he played in Love and Money, plausible, selfish and despicable. My only argument is with the casting of Patrick Driver as the cheating husband in Helter Skelter. He looks like a rat with his boring tweed jacket and ginger hair and some of our distaste for him is in his weasel-like characterisation. However, I think the point might have been even more effective if he were handsome to look at: rather than handsome is as handsome does, this man is ugly is as ugly does. This is a tiny quibble in a deeply satisfying theatre outing.

Sara Perks has given us functional but impersonal sets and Patricia Benecke is obviously a director to watch. It is the tiny Bush Theatre which is staging these plays which has just lost its Arts Council funding, a major part of its income. The reason for this curious decision to cut off monies to one of our famous fringe pub theatres that brings so much new writing and so many new playwrights to the fore is because, with 81 seats, the Arts Council say it's too small. Poppycock!

Written by Neil LaBute
Directed by Patricia Benecke

Starring: Ruth Gemmell
With: John Kirk, Patrick Driver
Design: Sara Perks
Lighting: John Harris
Music: Nikola Kodjabashia
A production from The Yvonne Arnaud Theatre Guildford and The Bush Theatre London
Dialogue Productions
Running time: Land of the Dead 20 minutes, Helter Skelter 40 minutes with no interval
Box Office: 020 7610 4224
Booking to 16th February 2008
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 18th January 2008 performance at the Bush Theatre, Shepherds Bush Green, London W12 (Tube: Shepherds Bush but from 2nd February Metropolitan Line only)

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