Manchester Theatre Awards

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In a Forest, Dark and Deep (Greater Manchester Fringe Festival)

Neil LaBute
Stuffed Horse Theatre
Salford Arts Theatre
05 July 2016 to 10 July 2016

Stuffed Horse Theatre’s latest production, In a Forest, Dark and Deep, shows them to be both an ambitious and a crafty company. Playwright Neil LaBute's controversial and shocking reputation grabs the attention of potential audiences and the play is a two-hander so can be staged economically. That said, the production certainly does not look cheap with a nicely chaotic stage overloaded with books and boxes.

Betty (Melanie Crawley) has put aside her wild youth and now enjoys a more prosperous lifestyle than her blue-collar brother Bobby (Simon Atherton). She can afford a secluded cottage and recruits Bobby to help pack up the belongings of a former tenant. However, as the evening progresses secrets become clear and old resentments surface threatening to divide the siblings when Betty most needs support.

Director David Chafer builds the tension gradually. The initial impression is that of icy relations between the siblings thawing as the cast are physically close only when the characters are goofing around dancing to U2 tunes. Increasing divisions between the couple are suggested with them arguing while standing at separate points on the stage. The emphasis throughout is on psychological rather than actual violence so the occasions when the couple make physical contact have real impact.

Author LaBute does not write convincing female characters – they tend to be manipulative or reflections of male opinions. Betty is male wish–fulfillment compensating for low self-esteem by sleeping with anything in trousers. Melanie Crawley has; however, a wonderful air of bewildered resentment as she tries to come to terms with the way the aging process has devalued the features upon which she has built her self-image. Simon Atherton seems to be channeling Donald Trump’s celebration of ignorance dismissing the achievements of anyone outside of his narrow viewpoint and spitting out racist remarks. The sense of long-held resentment (and a darker motivation) is apparent in Atherton’s bristling, restless body language.

Fine performances and direction cannot, however, compensate for a shallow plot. It is so easy to anticipate plot developments that efforts to stimulate outrage fall flat. As you never really believe Bobby’s rants are sincere the possibility of him betraying his beliefs for the sake of his sister does not have the intended emotional impact. Perhaps aware that the shock value of the play is not as great as intended LaBute falls back on some inventive swearing which is neither big nor clever.

This is a very good production of a below-average play.

Reviewer: David Cunningham