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Review Round-up: Warm Welcome for Dark House?

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In a Dark Dark House, the latest work from American dramatist Neil Labute, made its European premiere at the Almeida last week (27 November 2008, previews from 20 November), to a star-studded audience including Harry Potter star Emma Watson (See 1st Night Photos, 28 November 2008).

In a Dark Dark House features rare stage performances by David Morrissey and Steven Mackintosh, who play brothers Terry and Drew who are brought together as one undergoes court-ordered rehab. The forced reunion brings to light barely-hidden animosities between the two and their troubled legacy, both inside and outside their dark family home.

The play received its world premiere at Off-Broadway’s MCC Theater in May 2007, but has been reworked by LaBute and director Michael Attenborough for this new production, which also stars Kira Sternbach and runs until 17 January 2009.

Most critics made mention in their reviews of Labute’s admission (via a programme note) that he himself suffered abuse as a child, adding an undoubted pertinence to the play’s central subject. However, for some the lack of distance between the author and his subject was a problem, with the Daily Telegraph’s Charles Spencer finding that Labute “failed to do justice to events that must still be raw in his heart”. The performances of the cast however were almost universally praised, with the “remarkable” turns of David Morrissey and Steven Mackintosh suggesting their return to the stage was worth the wait. And special mention went to designer Lez Brotherston for his “delightfully detailed” garden set.

  • Michael Coveney on Whatsonstage.com (three stars) – “As he makes clear in the introduction to the printed text, Neil LaBute’s latest London premiere is both an excavation of his own childhood and a deliberate homage to both Sam Shepard and Ingmar Bergman. Two brothers return to their childhood and the dark secrets of a violent father and an abusive family friend. Sounds grim? Yet more dramatic chest-beating as a form of self-therapy? Haven’t we just about had enough family reunions this week from T S Eliot and Steppenwolf? Yes to all three questions, but LaBute loads his dice in a fascinating way and Michael Attenborough’s involving production has two remarkable, unstrained performances from David Morrissey and Steven Mackintosh ... LaBute makes it hard for us to see things straight, as usual, and Morrissey finds an unexpected softness in his armoury, while Mackintosh seems to have taken childhood with him into the grown-up jungle. An anecdotal trifle assumes a bleak and tragic dimension.”

  • Michael Billington in the Guardian (three stars) – “For all its intensity, it feels too much like a piece of confessional theatre in which the playhouse becomes the equivalent of the analyst\'s couch … On the plus side, LaBute is unafraid to venture into dangerous territory. In the bizarrely chilling central scene, Terry encounters a 15-year-old girl who runs a mini-golf course. As the two strike up an instant, quasi-sexual rapport, we see the myth of adolescent innocence artfully exposed. But, while LaBute has valid things to say about the ambivalence of many adult-child relationships, he is on trickier ground when he returns to the reasons for Terry\'s psychological state … Michael Attenborough\'s production explores every nuance and Lez Brotherston\'s set ingeniously shifts from rehab unit to putting green to private lawn. David Morrissey\'s Terry also moves persuasively from rock-solid citizen to a man haunted by past memories and filled with a strange protectiveness towards his brother.”

  • Charles Spencer in the Daily Telegraph (three stars) - “The problem is that LaBute has been so determined to turn personal trauma into public entertainment that he has failed to do justice to events that must still be raw in his heart. The play\'s devious construction, in which we are tricked by red herrings, and invited to be gobsmacked by sudden chunks of withheld information, sits uneasily with the gravity of the subject matter. I wish the writer had found the courage to be more truthful and less artful … Steven Mackintosh is memorably devious and cocky as Drew, a persuasive portrait of the kind of addict who finds it impossible to be honest, while Kira Sternbach proves disconcertingly sexy as the teenage temptress. The best performance, though, comes from David Morrissey as the blue-collar older brother who reveals extraordinary depths of grief, damage and forgiveness that finally light up this dark, flawed play.”

  • Simon Edge in the Daily Express (three stars) - “There was a time when childhood sexual abuse was a great taboo, but these days it’s more shocking if the big ‘reveal’ in a book or play doesn’t involve that. Fortunately, Neil LaBute is up to something a little more subtle in his latest small but elegantly crafted study of male anguish … Michael Attenborough’s production takes place on a naturalistic woodland set by Lez Brotherston which seems perfect for the first scene but gets confusing when it is meant to serve as different places in scenes two and three … Morrissey, bigger and slower than his brother, is surprisingly unmenacing given the violent anger that will eventually spill out … This may well be an accurate vignette about a version of masculinity, but the pathology of the playwright is just as interesting as his character’s. It cries out for a commentary that LaBute himself cannot supply.”

  • Benedict Nightingale in The Times (four stars) - “The insight at the core of In a Dark Dark House is maybe the most disturbing of all. A man may be abused and enjoy the experience. He may be damaged and have been complicit in the damage. He may have loved and may still love the person who has ruined the rest of his life … I initially thought Morrissey’s acting a bit stiff, almost as if he was waiting for his cues rather than reacting instantaneously to their content, only to find him more and more impressive as Michael Attenborough’s production proceeded. The last of the play’s three scenes, with that stiffness revealed as insecurity and a wary defensiveness and Mackintosh’s small, scrawny Drew sharing his increasingly evident pain, is all-American in its energy if not quite in its accents ... go and see this very personal, pretty powerful addition to the LaBute files.”

    - by Theo Bosanquet

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