In A Forest, Dark And Deep

Published March 15, 2011

Sibling relationships have never been as fraught as depicted in Neil LaBute’s new play, which premiered last night at the Vaudeville theatre. Or so you would hope…

From the moment Matthew Fox’s Bobby arrives at the cabin in the woods owned by his sister Betty (Olivia Williams), he releases a barrage of long-festering tension that makes you wonder why – knowing him as she must – she asked him there to help her pack up its contents. In fact there are a lot of things that, at first, don’t entirely ring true about LaBute’s scenario. But this, we come to learn, is actually the point.

Bobby is a carpenter with a chest-full of simmering resentment and an open drawer of distasteful opinions. Racist, homophobic and sexist with a penchant for violence, he is not a man who is easy to like. Betty, meanwhile, is a college Dean, proud of her career and where she has got to in life, even if Bobby sees this as her rubbing his face in it. But through a series of revelations, LaBute takes the audience’s initial assessment of these characters on an ever-twisting journey until, by the end, our preconceptions are punched off-kilter.

Making his West End debut and with a distinctly limited theatre CV to date, Fox is impressively confident on stage. With a strong physical presence, he brings an animalistic swagger to the character that effectively expresses the simmering violence within him, waiting for the trigger to unleash it. It is also admirable that, after many years playing people to root for on television, he has chosen such an objectionable character with which to debut on the London stage.

As Betty, Williams paces about Soutra Gilmour’s two-storey set, increasingly fraught with emotion as Bobby pressures her into revealing the real reason she called him to the cabin on a dark night in the middle of a storm. It must be a difficult role to play, because a lot of Betty’s actions and reactions do not seem entirely realistic, until gradually we come to realise why. It is then that LaBute begins to swing the pendulum. Bobby, until now the more objectionable of the pair, begins to appear more honest – and, he argues, more morally sound – than his sister, even if the opinions he stays true to are unpleasant.

All these swings and roundabouts serve to make the denouement, which finally uncovers the disturbing truth, all the more satisfying.

CB