EdFringe 2022 Review: Helter Skelter

Charles Manson’s manipulative power is the focus of Helter Skelter, VETO Productions’ new dramatic narrative work playing at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival’s Assembly George Square. Examining the psychology of the Manson cult, Helter Skelter is an absorbing, hard-hitting watch then presents an impressively original take on the infamous cult leader.

The year is 1967 and Susan (Elanor Wood) is running away from her hard-drinking, abusive father. After picking up work in a local strip-club, Susan and fellow dancer Kas (Jackie Macatiag) soon find themselves at Spahn Ranch adapting to life with Charles Manson (Mike Narouei) and his family of followers. Here they witness Manson’s unorthodox manner of treating his followers and suggestions of his darker intentions.

As well as taking on the role of Manson, Narouei writes and directs Helter Skelter. Gaining added originality and freshness by centring the narrative around one of Manson’s real life followers Susan Atkins, Helter Skelter does well to avoid the expected trappings of material about Manson – that is mainly focusing on the murder of Sharon Tate. Susan is an impressive emotional heart to the narrative and it’s a welcome move to introduce her backstory – escaping her abusive father (yet ironically ending up a follower of an even more manipulative figure) and then also falling victim to the brutish behaviour of male customers at the strip club – one of them being Beach Boys producer and Doris Day’s son Terry Melcher, who would also gravitate later towards the Manson family.

Helter Skelter then goes on to immerse us in Manson’s twisted logic, captured through the eyes of Susan. In the Spahn Ranch scenes we see Manson switch from charm to cruelty in an instant – with Narouei impressively capturing that dichotomy. Gradual manipulation of followers through rules, moments of public humiliation and increasingly showy moments of ‘breaking them,’ we get a sense of the complex, unsettling mentality of the cult leader. An analogy of a lion cub raised by sheep is used in a tense moment as Manson degrades family member Tex, whilst heated moments of gun violence capture Manson’s disconcerting control on the lives of his followers.

The production does an impressive job at conjuring an atmosphere of distress and unease in the Spahn Ranch setting – it’s a melting pot of insecurity, distrust, violence and manipulation. By the excited arrival of one of the members of the family with a copy of The Beatles’ Helter Skelter and discussion of a race war, we get a sense of the grim foreboding events that are etched in the Manson Family’s notorious history.

Helter Skelter is a well-constructed glimpse into the mentality of the cult. It’s an unsettling, foreboding examination of the events leading up to the infamous crimes of the Manson Family.

Helter Skelter plays at the Assembly George Square until August 29th. Get tickets here.

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