Kings Head Theatre, London
Written by Albert Camus
Directed by Stephen Whitson
|Jamie Birkett as Martha|
Every now and then, a performance and a production come along, that astound. Cross Purpose, a little known play by Albert Camus is such an event.
Conveniently staged in the now traditional October run-up to Halloween, the premise of the play is a troubling horror story that is at once both visual and psychological. Jamie Birkett is Martha, a woman who together with her mother has run a guest house in the rural wilds of some landlocked European nation. We are told that over the years occasional guests have been robbed and routinely murdered by the couple and how Jan, a handsome young man who has checked in that day, looks like a suitable case for slaughter. Unbeknownst to the hosts, Jan is their long lost son and brother, keen to re-acquaint himself with his family. To say more of the plot would be to spoil, but the understated menace that surrounds the exchanges between man and women, is chillingly played.
Understatement is the watchword of this carefully crafted tale that has been expertly translated by Stuart Gilbert. Birkett is a callow harridan, aged before her time, made up with pale drawn features that are shocking to look at. Her face is that of a woman deprived of the sunlight of love and happiness and when late in the play she says “ No one has kissed my mouth or seen me naked…. and that must be paid for” we get a glimpse in to the hellish furnaces of contempt and jealousy of compassionate humankind that burn within her. Where Martha is grey faced, Jan’s complexion is tanned and attractive. Early in the story, we see Martha possibly attracted to the visitor ( unaware at that stage that he is a sibling ) , leaving the audience alarmed that a possibly incestuous love could yet unfold in addition to any potentially murderous horrors. In a coincidental echo of Sondheim’s Mrs Lovett from Sweeney Todd, Martha longs to leave her landlocked misery for a life by the sea and indeed this tale chimes with that musical on several occasions, serial killing being undertaken by those angry with a world and a society that has forsaken them.
Horror is challenging enough to portray on screen, requiring the audience’s disbelief to be suspended sufficiently enough to allow natural emotions of fear and anxiety to be stimulated. The requirements for on stage horror to succeed are identical, but even more challenging as the performers are forced to rely almost entirely upon the strengths of their own abilities, rather than gruesome props or special effects. Birkett’s ability to take us on this grim journey is a tour de force, reminiscent of a young Fiona Shaw. The play is entirely dark, though occasional glimmers of wry irony are allowed to pierce the misery and in these moments Birkett’s hotelier performance evokes an infernal concoction of Basil Fawlty, Psycho’s Norman Bates, with just a hint of Les Miserables’ M. Thenadier. An accomplished musical theatre performer to date, this role defines Birkett as a dramatic star of her generation.
The supporting cast are a treat to watch. Christina Thornton delivers an ageing Mother weary of her murderous life and deeply troubled. Like Sondheim’s barber, she evokes both our loathing and also at times our sympathy for her miserable plight. David Lomax is a convincing Jan, wholesome and attractive, with a sincere compassion towards his mother and sister. Making a marvellous cameo as the house’s wise and all seeing Manservant is 86 year-old Leonard Fenton. Famed as EastEnders’ Dr Legg, this veteran actor proves that there is life after Albert Square, just. Mute, until the play’s final scene, his ability to act through an authentically doddery movement and a gimlet eye is a masterclass in performance that adds to the disquieting aura of the isolated setting of the tale.
Stephen Whitson has helmed a well-crafted production. The Kings Head’s stage is small with limited scope for props and scenery and as has been well documented, a convincing horror story depends on skilfully crafted sound. Designer Tim Adnitt achieves ambience and setting, as well as background noise, in a way that is chilling and convincing, but never melodramatic.
This production only runs for ten performances but undoubtedly deserves a larger venue and a longer residency. Dramatic performances rarely come better than this.
Runs until November 11