Land of the Dead/Helter Skelter

Tue 7th – Sat 25th August 2012

reviews

Rachel Cunliffe

at 20:42 on 23rd Aug 2012

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‘Land Of The Dead’ and ‘Helter Skelter’ are in fact two separate plays, linked by the concept of personal tragedy. The programme suggests inspiration from 9/11, but this is a tangential association. What these pieces, written by Neil LaBute, offer the audience is a snapshot into the moments of tragedy suffered by ordinary people leading ordinary lives.

The first play, ‘Land Of The Dead’, consists of simultaneous monologues, performed by Matt Cox and Elizabeth Mears. The pair relate both sides of their story, narrating one of the most tragic events a modern couple could be unfortunate enough to experience. Without giving too much away, it is very difficult subject matter, but the script steers clear of ever preaching or patronising the audience, handling the topic with a degree of subtlety which evokes empathy. The character of the boyfriend is unlikable and tactless, ignorant and insensitive as he implies that what his girlfriend is experiencing really isn’t a big deal, but Cox plays him with just the right amount of awkwardness and doubt. The result is that it is hard not to pity him. Mears, in contrast, plays the girlfriend as discreet and pragmatic, with a hint of concealed fury and grief which makes her entirely believable. The twist at the end is made more powerful by how understated she is, blurring personal tragedy with national disaster perfectly.

‘Helter Skelter’ is a two-hander between a husband (Matt Cox again) and wife (Cat Chapman). Dialogue begins as swift and fluid, and Chapman really masters an edge of quiet hysteria in her voice. However, the script here simply isn’t as strong and the conversation sometimes degenerates into repetition. Chapman has some powerful speeches, which she expresses beautifully, but later the energy diminishes and Cox is not nearly as strong as in ‘Land Of The Dead’. The climax, though theoretically more dramatic than that of the previous play, somehow fails to make as much of an impact.

The idea of Greek tragedy is certainly toyed with in these pieces, but not to the extent implied by the programme. It is an interesting idea that could work well, but associating these private dramas with Sophocles and Euripides feels disingenuous. All three actors are clearly talented, and Tom Anderson’s direction is solid, but his vision doesn’t quite translate. Though it may not live up to its potential, ‘Land Of The Dead’ and ‘Helter Skelter’ are definitely worth watching.

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Rivkah Brown

at 21:15 on 23rd Aug 2012

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A monologue can often fall into the trap of becoming an easy, standard and therefore boring opener to a play; not so with ‘Land of the Dead’, the first half of this bipartite show. The fifteen-minute dual monologue of lovers Elizabeth Mears and Matt Cox (who remain unnamed throughout the performance) take us through their parallel experiences of the same few hours, the excruciating culmination of which would be too cruel to give away. Suffice to say that both of the pair’s days are equally yet quite differently eventful. The mirroring written into Neil LaBute’s script, as well as Mears and Cox’s characterisation, is gentle and evocative.

As the lights go down and the second half, ‘Helter Skelter’, gets underway, it becomes apparent that though superficially divided into two discrete halves, these are very much interdependent, though utterly bipolar in tone. ‘Helter Skelter’ follows the very same man, this time with a woman (Cat Chapman) who appears to be his pregnant, highly-strung wife. Though this puts the previous scene into its extramarital context; the painful, cramped exchanges between Cox and Chapman make Cox’s affair with Mears are far more romantic and caring than his marriage could ever be. Matt Cox straddles the two scenes, and is a dependable though not intensely virtuosic linchpin as the unnamed ‘Man’. Chapman, meanwhile, gives a confident performance, though is not always responsive enough to Cox to make their marital dynamic wholly credible.

‘Helter Skelter’ is an apt way of describing the gut-churning ups-and-downs that can occur within a single conversation, yet also encompasses the inconsistencies of tone within the second half. I felt that Chapman’s maniacal outbursts came out of nowhere, and were dissonant with the introverted mannerisms of Cox. It means that the tragic finale, rather than reaching the ‘epic proportions’ to which Tom Anderson aspires in his Director’s Note, implodes into semi-insignificance. Perhaps this implosive effect is deliberate, since, as Chapman points out in a jarring moment of sudden inspiration, we have each lost our innate sense of tragedy and yearn for normal, unextraordinary lives. Unfortunately, these three individuals get a great deal more tragedy than they bargain for.

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