Theatre Review: Helter Skelter

Amy Ocelot reviews VETO Productions' Helter Skelter.

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Image courtesy of VETO

The story of ‘Helter Skelter’ revolves around a young lady, Susan Atkins (Amelia Banerjee) who is being investigated for the brutal murder of Sharon Tate, who was at the final trimester of her pregnancy when she died. It is set in 1969 during the peak of the hippie period, the period of reformation and happy rebellion.

The scene starts with Susan at the table, listening to music from the stereo in front of two full plates of food laid out in front of her whilst twiddling with her thumbs, an obvious sign of nervousness. Then Susan’s father John Atkins (Liam Cain) walks in, who appears to be in a drunken state and proceeds to take a seat at the table without paying any attention towards Susan. Susan straightens up and immediately switches the radio off, leaving only silence, and a heightened alertness is awoken amongst the viewers. A conversation then bellows with John instructing Susan to pour him a drink.

The conversation which then follows is of a racist nature, followed by derogatory terms used on women after he enquires about Susan’s day at school. The dysfunctional home environment of Susan is attributed to Susan’s actions later on in the plot by the lawyer, who also makes an attempt to narrate the development of the plot, which consists of mainly flashbacks, and the recollection from a witness, Mary (Rosie Schofield), and Susan herself.

Notorious Charles Manson (Mike Narouei), formerly a cult leader, built a quasi-commune with devil worship and instigating murder as part of what he believed was helping the apocalyptical race war he named ‘Helter Skelter’, based on the Beatles song. The play explores how the actions of Susan Atkins were in fact the very actions of Charles Manson, although not physically murdering Sharon, but insinuating the murder based on Susan’s and his other followers’ broken pasts.

Susan Atkins meets Linda Kassabian AKA ‘Kas’ (Rachel Morris) at a diner who kindly offers her a meal and a place to stay, but in return for the latter, she would have to agree to work as a stripper. Mamma (Beth Dyke), who runs the joint, is a widow who decides to invest all of the money she got from her husband’s death into the joint and agrees to let Susan work and live with Kas. However, Susan, having a pronounced love for singing, sees it as another way to save up extra money to fund her escape from the place and is hopeful that she would be able to move away to be signed by a record label. The argument between Kas and a fellow colleague (Rosie Schofield) results in a disagreement as to how Susan prostitutes for extra money, which then leads to Susan being called into Mamma’s office where she is fired.

Kas and Susan both decide to leave the premises, although at the fury of Mamma, and this is when they meet Charles Manson and his followers, Leslie Van Houten (Isabel Shaw) and Patricia Krenwinkle (Hannah Swain). You’re able to see why Charles Manson was incredibly charming. The actor executed the character very well, speaking in riddles to which Susan responds very accurately as well, undoubtedly proving that the scriptwriting was exceptionally brilliant, with a simplistic use of words, yet a very good play of character.

It continues with the representation of the biker group, Reapers, in which Reggie Ladou (Liam Cain) plays a member who often frequents Charles Manson’s lair to exchange sex with protection for his cult. The women amongst his followers are expected to fornicate with the biker men, which Charles assured them was the right thing to do. The plot quickly builds with disturbing narrations of how Charles conditioned his followers by prodding them into traumatic experiences, with brilliant actors who convinced you that what you were watching was real, and the background music chosen to accompany every scene was very well thought out and left silence where necessary, which is often the determinant factor as to how much the experience is enjoyed by the audience.

Towards the end, Charles Manson attempts to fully envelop his followers into recognising him as having ultimate power, and hands Patricia, a mentally-challenged individual, a knife for her to kill herself in his name. However, realising this, the actor executes fear, rationality and confusion very well, and the character is then killed by Susan herself as a punishment after being brainwashed by Charles.

Charlie adopts a lion and cub approach with Tex (Calum Lake), where he asks Tex to roar for him, which as peculiar of a situation it was, saw no hesitation from the actor with tremendous focus invested into the role. The recount of Mary at the stand, is that she was not fit enough to be a follower and is turned away, which explores an area of the cult which was selective and manipulative in nature.

The end of the plot shows Susan in handcuffs recalling her encounter with Charles and how it confirms the insanity that Charles Manson had driven his followers to. The followers were manipulated into murdering many innocent beings and the play explores how the verdict which was then carried out had everything to do with the manipulation through his torments and his mind games. The play also uses very clever props that allow for effective utilisation and storytelling.

At the finale, the viewers are left with an almost mind-numbing emptiness with the shocking experience of what is an amazing exercise performed by an amazing cast. The lighting team has to be credited for the timely shift in scenes. The only negative would be that members of the audience who already knew that it would be the ending tended to clap way too early and it leaves a viewer who has never watched the play a little disappointed that they were not allowed to come to a realisation. But it is an enjoyable performance and definitely worth a watch. Once again, a brilliant performance and kudos to those involved.

Helter Skelter was staged and performed by VETO Productions: https://www.facebook.com/vetoproductions/