Helter Skelter Review – impressive, engaging, and improved

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Amelia Banerjee as Susan Atkins and Samuel Pye as Charles Manson in Helter Skelter

One year ago, VETO publicly debuted the original ‘Helter Skelter’ at The Storey. It was an interesting play, that used the space well and offered promising performances. Last Monday, at the Grand, VETO staged a new version of the play which built on the original, and whilst it wasn’t everything I had hoped it to be, it was still an impressive evening of theatre.

The play’s focus is on Susan Atkins, a member of Charles Manson’s cult, and chronicles her entrance into the cult, as well as her trial, performed as two concurrent narratives. This version of the play cuts the detail of Susan’s backstory from the original. The effect of this is an improvement in pacing, but it also makes everything less cohesive, we aren’t as engaged with Susan as we once were, and it is a struggle to understand why she becomes a stripper and later a cult member. The first act also felt like a series of monologues at times. However, these issues with the script are confined to the first half of the play, where material from the original is being repurposed for this version. Where the play really succeeds is in the second half, which appears more fresh and delves much more into the cult itself.

In the interval I had a few issues with the first half. I felt the play wasn’t engaging with how surreal and weird life in the Charles Manson cult would be, and I thought it felt quite tame to an extent. The second half of the play addressed these concerns with the most visually striking part of the play when Manson is smeared in blood by his followers whilst he stands before a cross. This scene was well directed by director Kieran Burton, and felt suitably shocking and realistic, it seemed a shame it was saved till so late in the play when it would have added some shock to the first half. My own personal highlight of the play was when the two narratives of Susan being interrogated by the lawyer Vincent Bugliosi and by Manson overlapped, and she was almost trapped between them. This again was directed so well, and was the moment in the play that gave me goosebumps.

Amelia Banerjee with Mike Narouei as Vincent Bugliosi

The lead performances were engaging and the cast seemed very comfortable on a large stage. Amelia Banerjee as Susan managed to be both restrained and expressive, Samuel Pye was suitably creepy in the role of Charles Manson (I only wish he had more stage time) and Michael Narouei was a commanding narrator as the lawyer Vincent Bugliosi. Having a large ensemble also worked well, but some supporting characters weren’t as developed as they could have been.

Outside of the show itself, I feel I have to credit the way this production was marketed. It was so well advertised, in a way that really created a buzz around it. I have spoken about the play with several different people, which is something that just doesn’t normally happen with student theatre. It’s really impressive that VETO have managed to create a brand and become a talking point in so little time and without SU funding.

‘surreal and weird’, the ensemble of Helter Skelter

I did miss their trademark sound design which is something they normally do so well as this production felt a little quiet at times, as if it just needed a little lift from sound or lighting. But the set worked well, sometimes events could have been brought to the front as the Grand has quite a deep stage, but this did not feel like something that had previously been performed at the Storey and space was balanced very well. The production photos also speak for themselves in showing the quality of the staging.

Overall, it was a successful production. Issues with the first half are made up for by the second act, and it has to be taken into account how well this play was marketed and how many seats in the Grand were filled. There was a real buzz around this production, and whilst it wasn’t everything it looked set to be, it was an improvement on the original, and an achievement that everyone at VETO should be proud of.

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