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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at the Vaudeville


  Matthew Fox and Olivia Williams/ Ph: Alastair Muir

Neil LaBute has pursued his own dramatic formula with such unerring predictability over the years that you need only to read "a two-hander featuring a brother and sister" to go: "Aha, that would be a spot of incest, then." And so it proves in the world premiere of this unexceptional sibling drama that LaBute also directs – although to be fair, Bobby’s less than orthodox feelings towards his more academic, achieving sister Betty are not so much a typical LaButian shock tactic but, thanks to Matthew Fox, the source of the play’s only real emotional texture.

Betty (Olivia Williams), a dean at a local liberal arts college, has called on her beer-swilling, blue-collar carpenter brother to help her clear a cabin she rents out in the woods, but it’s soon obvious her request is born more from thoughtless desperation than the wish to spend a convivial evening with her bro. Bobby and Betty’s relationship is full of age-old, still-fresh barbs and bites, and as they – somewhat inefficiently – pack up books, the duo verbally prowls around each other like two mistrustful dogs, Bobby determined to sniff out what he suspects are fishy untruths in Betty’s account of what has happened to her former tenant.

Manipulative narrators, the smouldering threat of sexual violence and a story that isn’t what it appears are LaBute trademarks, but here, as increasingly elsewhere, his theatrical modus operandi feels like a mere means to an end, a hollow succession of party tricks that neither advances our understanding of his characters nor finds its own dramatic tension.

Nonetheless, Fox is quite mesmerising as Bobby, an electric bundle of foul-mouthed political incorrectness, physically threatening swagger and barely repressed resentment of the intellectually superior Betty, who tantalisingly suggests that Bobby’s blatant misogyny towards other women is partly the product of his repressed, life-long sexual feelings (a mix of desire, jealousy and contempt) for his promiscuous sister.

Williams, always a strikingly sensitive presence on stage, fares less well. She gives an undeniably tense, increasingly panicky performance as Betty, but even she can’t disguise the fact that Betty is little more than a succession of clichés (fear of aging, unsatisfactory marriage, a string of affairs); a character drawn, in fact, as a cypher in ways that resonate alarmingly with Bobby’s own ugly, reductive view of women.

LaBute is clearly interested in moral relativity here – Bobby’s redneck conservatism frequently explodes against Betty’s more progressive liberalism – yet as the sparring continues, the good-cop-bad-cop distinction becomes increasingly muddied the more slippery Betty’s motivations are revealed to be. Yet, so what? Really, who cares? There’s no emotional muscle here, no heart beating behind the punches, no reason given to be interested. LaBute’s heavy-handed reference in his play’s title and setting to buried secrets and psychological depth is never rewarded, in much the same way that the storm raging outside the handsome cabin interior is full of gimmicky melodrama. What you get instead is little more than a series of increasingly implausible plot twists that, to this audience member at least, were pretty obvious at least 10 minutes before they were revealed.


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