Review: Cross Purpose, Kings Head

“One can’t always remain a stranger”

Albert Camus may be better known as a philosopher and author than as a playwright so it is a rare opportunity that presents itself to catch his play Cross Purpose (Le Malentendu) in the Sunday/Monday slot at Islington’s King’s Head Theatre pub. A mother and daughter eke out a joyless existence, running a glum guesthouse somewhere in Central Europe and murdering their rich guests, but when their next victim turns out to be a man with a connection to them both, tragic consequences ensue. 

Stuart Gilbert’s translation captures something of the philosophical weight of Camus’ writing, his exploration of the way life is cruel to anyone no matter how intrinsically good or evil they may be, but often does so in a rather cumbersome manner. There’s an archness to the text which also possesses a vein of mordant humour, both of which prove effective in summoning the strangeness of this world. But the turn of phrase occasionally jars in its awkwardness and not all the actors manage to surmount this challenge.

Jamie Birkett emerges the strongest as Martha, a haunted husk of a young woman devoid of love or compassion. Even her long-cherished dream of moving to live by the sea has a grimness in Birkett’s hands as the steely glint in her eye suggests the glee anticipated in catering for Jan, their new guest, in their own inimitable style. She connects well with Christina Thornton’s wearied Mother, whose zeal for their way of life has long since died, and her delivery of a key monologue confirms her status as an actress destined for great things.

David Lomax’s Jan takes a while to find his groove as Jan, the epitome of kindness and compassion, but soon draws us into the depth of the dilemma that emerges, and there’s fun work from Leonard Fenton as a near-wordless factotum. Melissanthi Mahut’s naturalistic delivery of Maria, Jan’s wife, strikes a duff note though in Stephen Witson’s production, her emotion not sufficiently raw to pierce the soul or mannered enough to fit with the rest of the performances.

In the limited space of the Kings Head, Jenny Gamble’s simple design allows Phil Hunter to play with light and sound in the most evocative of ways to really amplify the horror story ambience, which really lifts the overall effect of this intriguing curiosity.  

Running time: 2 hours 20 minutes (with interval)
Booking until 11th November

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