Matthew Fox and Olivia Williams in
In a Forest, Dark and Deep
(© Alistair Muir)
Matthew Fox and Olivia Williams in
In a Forest, Dark and Deep
(© Alistair Muir)
Neil LaBute's latest play, In a Forest, Dark and Deep, receiving its world premiere at the Vaudeville Theatre in the West End, is an often taut two-hander about sibling relations, which benefits from strong performances from stars Matthew Fox and Olivia Williams.

Bobby and Betty are in her cabin in the woods on a stormy night clearing out the possessions of the previous tenant. Although tied by blood, the twosome is about as distant from one another as it's possible to be. She is the snippy dean of a liberal arts college, while he is a carpenter -- determinedly blue collar with the thick, grey-flecked beard to prove it. Feuding is what they do best.

The play, like the lightning that flashes outside the cabin window, contains intermittent flashes of excitement as the siblings spar. He is volatile, misogynistic, and carries a number of chips on his shoulder, taking every opportunity to attack her career and lifestyle -- he has no time for artists of any kind and thinks reading The New Yorker is a sure sign of homosexuality -- and her sexual past. Bobby's so-called moral code is truly the crux of the play.

For her part, Betty underestimates him and is happy to play him for her own needs. Her relationship with the truth is flexible to say the least and LaBute takes pleasure in teasing and twisting, in the drip-feed of information. Still, the sense of suspense is also only intermittent and the production feels baggier than one might expect.

Fox captures Bobby's intensity, his shaken beer-can of a temper, and the way he uses his physical strength to threaten and cow his sister while also suggesting a latent capacity for tenderness. There's more of a sense of artifice to Williams' work, which is fitting given what we learn about her character; even the monologue about her fear of the social and sexual invisibility inherent in becoming a middle-aged woman seems spoken for Bobby's benefit, as if culled from a textbook. However, the sexual murkiness of their relationship is less plausibly written and played.

Soutra Gilmour's Alpine gingerbread set, with its striking pitched roof and large windows alludes to the world of fairytale, which is apt given the moral universe of the characters and the references to sin and punishment.

As a director, LaBute plays up the slasher movie connotations of the forest setting, with its thunder claps, flickering light bulbs, and sudden plunges into blackness. But what blades there are remain verbal and psychological -- and some of these are far too blunt for their own good.