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Review Round-up: Were Critics Lost in the Forest?

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The world premiere of Neil LaBute's In A Forest, Dark and Deep opened on Monday (14 March, previews from 3 March 2011) with Lost heartthrob Matthew Fox making his West End debut alongside British stage and screen star Olivia Williams.

On a dark and stormy night, all Bobby thought he was doing was helping his sister Betty clear out her cottage in the forest. But in this cabin of lies nothing is as it seems and the truth refuses to be packed away. What is she hiding? Does he really want to find out?

Written and directed by LaBute, the psychological thriller plays a limited 12-week season at the Vaudeville Theatre to 4 June 2011.

Michael Coveney

"Edgy, schematic, brilliantly constructed, unpredictable: you couldn’t ask much more of a two-hander: but Neil LaBute’s In a Forest, Dark and Deep, a world premiere, is only a sibling stand-off companion piece to his much richer, and more disturbing, In a Dark Dark House ... This new play’s efficiently and engagingly performed by hunky Lost star Matthew Fox and elegant, gestural Olivia Williams ... The main stuff, of course, is their own sibling relationship, which is barbed with resentment, obsession and envy ... LaBute skilfully weaves his way through his own arbitrary revelations ... I’ve always liked the way LaBute messes with PC tolerance, but it’s quite an easy trope if you’re looking for controversy in the theatre. We may be coming through a post-Clybourne Park era where this kind of writing doesn’t look quite as daring as it once did. But it’s good to have LaBute back in the West End, mixing it all up a bit."

Michael Billington

"In this highly entertaining, 100-minute two-hander Neil LaBute pulls the rug from under our feet so often that we end up feeling breathless ... What LaBute is writing about is the elusiveness of truth and the deceptiveness of appearances. Bobby, for all his sexism and racism, turns out to be a fierce puritan. Betty, on the other hand, is an instinctive liar. But, while it's good to have our assumptions overturned, I am always a little suspicious of plays where it's dangerous to reveal too much of the plot. Great drama does not depend heavily on narrative suspense. But LaBute's play starts by echoing the sibling intensity of Sam Shepard's Fool for Love and ends up resembling Ira Levin's Deathtrap. As the revelations keep tumbling out, you feel that LaBute is not so much exploring Betty's inability to face reality as taking the audience on a theatrical rollercoaster ride."

Henry Hitchings
Evening Standard

"This is a play that thrives on disclosure. 'Truth hurts,' Bobby intones, and it's a line that holds the key to the drama: on the face of it a hackneyed observation, but in fact a comment about the painful disparity between what we believe to be the case and the actual details that emerge. Surprisingly, though he says some rebarbative things, it's Bobby who in the end proves more sympathetic. Meanwhile, Betty at first appears wholesome, but soon turns out to be slippery; Williams manages this deftly, savouring her moments of needy angst. Yet it's hard to identify with either character, and most of the revelations are predictable. The play is heavier on plot than LaBute's previous work - at times resembling a twisted cousin of Ira Levin's ingenious Deathtrap - and there's some stinging dialogue, especially when Bobby expounds his sense of morality. But as a portrait of psychological warfare it's undernourished, and even when it's dark it isn't deep."

Paul Taylor

"Matthew Fox... and the redoubtable Olivia Williams... both give scorching performances that are, to my mind, a distinct cut above the material ... Bobby has some blackly hilarious moments of political incorrectness. At one point, he brings up a woman he has seen on the news whose husband, a veteran of the Iraq war, has been rendered impotent and incontinent. 'She's gotta be sick of sitting on top by now, right?' says Bobby, who ludicrously argues that his restraint in not trying to come between the pair is an index of his moral probity. And yet, as Fox's subtly shaded performance indicates, there is a sense in which the brother's near-misogynist resentment at Betty's sexual history is a token of his loving (albeit semi-incestuous) concern for her. Olivia Williams has the more difficult task as the initially mettlesome and increasingly distraught sister ... Betty proves to be just a clutch of clichés about the ageing female beauty that wind up seeming as embarrassing as the schlock thunder-and-lightning that cause convenient power cuts in the A-frame cabin, without generating any bona fide tension."

Charles Spencer
Daily Telegraph

"The American dramatist Neil LaBute is usually a master of imaginative unpleasantness. You may not like his plays, but boy, do they rivet your appalled attention ... There is often a profound sense of old fashioned original sin in his work but rarely a glimpse of mercy. But in this new play, which the dramatist directs himself, LaBute breaks new ground. The show is unpleasant all right, though not as ingeniously nasty as usual. It is also punishingly dull and predictable ... Plot twists almost always take me by surprise, to the derision of my family and friends – but not in this ponderously plodding show. Worse still, the dialogue is long winded and full of bluster... and the rough, crude brother and the educated literary sister come over as highly improbable siblings. It’s sad to see two fine actors – the American Matthew Fox... and our own, usually superb Olivia Williams, squandered in such tosh. Fox has his moments as the apparently crude and despicable brother who actually has a strong sense of morality, but Williams seems far too wholesome to persuade us that she is a promiscuous femme fatale who is also something worse. The only real mystery about this dire psychological thriller is why anyone thought it was worth staging in the West End in the first place."

Libby Purves
The Times

"Male writers often reflect on how terrible it must be for pretty girls to grow into middle-aged women who they no longer fancy. Neil LaBute, as the author and director giving London the world premiere of his new two-hander, hands Betty (Olivia Williams) an eloquent complaint ... For the first ten minutes, watching the bickering and occasional disco-dancing of Olivia Williams and Matthew Fox — star of Lost — in a forest cabin set, I felt as if I would rather watch a pair of hissing cockroaches. But the clever rhythm and emotional tempo increased, propelled with the players’ brilliance and fluency ... They time the jokes beautifully, and then the story itself becomes interesting, then exciting, and finally overwhelmingly tense. It is billed as being about sibling rivalry, but in fact majors on far deeper, dangerous things: the yearning to be understood, female manipulation, and fascinated male disgust at a sister’s lurid sexuality ... Most interesting of all is the way that in the siblings’ differences, two eras of America clash. Bobby represents an old, brutal, pioneer Wild West morality... Betty inhabits the new age of narcissistic personal “connections” and “needs” which override convention and family. To wrap this up inside a tense, unbroken 105-minute thriller is nifty. If – be warned – nasty."

Quentin Letts
Daily Mail

"Pretentious nihilism is the dubious joy in store for anyone who buys a ticket to see Matthew Fox on the West End ... Here he adorns a Neil LaBute play of unremitting misery ... Welcome to a modernist, loveless dump of despond. Fox and his co-star Olivia Williams do all right, I suppose. They act their parts as required by the playwright (who also directs - never a good sign). But the thing is so bleak, the characters so unconvincingly written, that the enterprise becomes pointless ... The setting is a rural, A-frame cabin somewhere in north America. Good set by Soutra Gilmour .. I had better not tell you too much more of the 'plot' (grandiose term) because it might spoil your enjoyment (!). The woman is an inveterate liar and adultress ... Later he drops his apparently stern morality. Why, I could not say ... Similarly, part of the tale depends on a man who uses the F word in his diary. Why would anyone, least of all an English student, do that? And then it ends, without much of a conclusion. Save for this: avoid Neil LaBute plays."

- Lis Reiten


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