It's a man's world

Neil LaBute's double bill is a savagely funny critique of male arrogance

Land of the Dead/ Helter Skelter
Bush Theatre, London W12

Years ago I was my paper's rather bad arts correspondent, bad because I thought reporting the arts was the same thing as reporting arts funding - and what could be more boring? I shan't be repeating the mistake in this new gig as theatre critic. That said, I was shocked to learn that Arts Council England, as it now brutally styles itself, was halving the Bush Theatre's grant. If Arts Council England is not there to siphon tax and Lottery-dosh revenue to a place like the Bush, a modest west London pub theatre that has launched many, many careers, what is it there for? As the theatre says in its appeal: "Playwrights need a small, properly funded playhouse in which to take risks."

Mind you, the risk that concerned me as I climbed to my seat last week was to my personal safety. Reaching out for support from the rear wall, I belatedly realised it was about a foot further away than I thought and nearly lost my balance. My companion, negotiating the same mountain pass, almost fell in the other direction, over the audience.

Such is the power of good theatre, however, that we were soon both involved in the greater perils dramatised in Land of the Dead, the first of the two playlets by the American playwright Neil LaBute. Like The Mercy Seat, which played at the Almeida in 2003, this is a post-9/11 piece. In The Mercy Seat, LaBute focuses on a businessman called Ben, who uses the World Trade Center massacre to fake his own death, leaving his family thinking him a hero while he is in fact with his mistress. The "Man" in Land of the Dead is not quite the monster Ben was, and this two-hander is not as bleak as The Mercy Seat. It was written for a benefit a year after 9/11, which is probably why LaBute's normally unblinking eye sheds a tear. But it is still a horror story.

The "Woman", played with astonishing poignancy and dignity by Ruth Gemmell, faces the audience at one side of the stage while the Man (a convincingly immature if recessional-haired John Kirk) addresses us from the other. They do not communicate because, it dawns on us, the Man is now dead. She relates the depressing morning she went to a clinic to terminate a pregnancy unwanted by the man. He is casual about the decision, even makes jokes about it: "I'm pro-choice, I am. She can choose to keep the kid, or she can choose to keep me."

But keeping him is what she cannot do, for his job is in the twin towers on 11 September. Her only keepsake is his last - too late in every sense - voicemail: "If you wanna, we can go ahead and just keep the thing." The Woman saves the message every few weeks, or even this inadequate souvenir will be extinguished.

The mobile phone - as well as fertility - is also central to Helter Skelter. Here a phone records not merely fecklessness, but treachery. The Man (an older man, played with superb over-articulacy by Patrick Driver) is meeting the Woman (this one heavily pregnant but played again by the brilliant Gemmell) at a chic restaurant before Christmas. What he does not know is that earlier she has spotted him kissing her sister. The Woman tries to take his phone to shame him, as she sees how many calls he has made to the sister. The Man deliberately drops and breaks it, but truth will out.

LaBute writes in the programme that its message is as old as the Greeks, "a primal scream about injustice and children and lost love". Personally, I could have done without its final gesture of Grand Guignol. That's the Greeks, I suppose. But the lead-up in which the Man persuades himself that the affair - six years of it - "just happened", and that his marriage can survive, unveils with savage comedy the cult of American optimism and the arrogance of the men who ride its wave.

It seems a long time ago that LaBute was accused of misogyny for his 1997 film In the Company of Men. Here he is guilty of the reverse. His subject is Man (the, a, any) as Asshole. It is a terrific night out, with fizzing dialogue. I must record, however, that although it is a short evening the audience almost expired from heat by the end. The Arts Council should not be impoverishing the Bush, but bequeathing it air conditioning and handrails.

Andrew Billen is a staff writer for the Times

Pick of the week

An Audience With the Mafia
Apollo Theatre, London W1
Hard but fair, one mafioso's dissection of Cosa Nostra.

La Cage aux Folles
Menier Chocolate Factory, London SE1
Douglas Hodge stars in the original Meet the Parents.

Citizens' Theatre, Glasgow
Unlikely tale about mapping - but Brian Friel is at his superb best.

Andrew Billen has worked as a celebrity interviewer for, successively, The Observer, the Evening Standard and, currently The Times. For his columns, he was awarded reviewer of the year in 2006 Press Gazette Magazine Awards.

This article first appeared in the 28 January 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Merchant adventurer