REVIEW: The Sunset Limited, Boulevard Theatre, London ✭✭✭

Julian Eaves reviews Cormac McCarthy’s The Sunset Limited which is now playing at the Boulevard Theatre, London.

Sunset Limited review Boulevard Theatre London
Gary Beadle and Jasper Britton. Photo: Marc Brenner

The Sunset Limited
Boulevard Theatre
21st January 2020
3 Stars
Book Tickets

Cormac McCarthy is best known in this country as the author of the novel, ‘The Road’, subsequently turned into a popular film with a screenplay by Joe Penhall.  Apart from writing many other successful novels, this American writer has also written two plays, and the most recent of those, first presented by Steppenwolf in Chicago in 2006, has now made its way to London.  It’s a good choice for this sparkling new venue, the glamorously sleek and elegant Boulevard Theatre: its intimate, comfortable space is a perfect location to enjoy its 95-minute conversation between two middle-aged American men.  There is surely a constituency of McCarthy fans who will appreciate seeing it here.

The Sundet Limited Cormac McCarthy
Gary Beadle and Jasper Britton. Photo: Marc Brenner

For this in-house premiere, the Boulevard has engaged the highly experienced director and writer, Terry Johnson; and he has quite a challenge in doing justice to a work cast in a form that is atypical of its author: perhaps McCarthy has a trunk-full of unperformed playscripts at home, but even so, Johnson describes its dramatic structure as ‘rudimentary’.  At the opening, Penhall was also on hand, and in a programme essay, he identifies the work as a ‘disquieting Beckettian disquisition’.  Well, Johnson’s designer, Tim Shortall, has certainly not opted for anything we could confuse with Beckett: we get a naturalistic staging, complete with a real fridge, a real stove that boils coffee and re-heats a stew, and a real door with lots of locks on it.  John Leonard’s sound design punctuates the space with the real sounds of a big, modern city.  Even more voluptuously, Ben Ormerod works magic with his suffusions of light, changing the hue of the furnishings from maroon to magenta to orange.

Sunset Limited review
Gary Beadle and Jasper Britton. Photo: Marc Brenner

Given such emphasis on an urban, if romantically autumnal realism, we are somewhat lured into expecting equally credible activity from the guys on stage.  But this does not happen.  Penhall gets it in a nutshell that this is anything but traditional drama.  Of the two actors, Gary Beadle, in a deliciously observed and vividly animated characterisation of the host – ‘Black’ – gets what is, in fact, a pretty effective monologue: you can listen to him, and relish what he says, in virtual isolation, ignoring the leaden, dull responses heaped on the other voice, his invitee, ‘White’.  Jasper Britton has the nearly impossible task of being what you, I or anybody else is likely to understand as a fairly undisguised incarnation of the author’s voice: a pessimistic, gloomy, educated but constantly grumbling old man, pouring scorn and contempt over the pathetic attempts of the human race to struggle through life.  It is a thankless role.  Yet, the coup-de-grace here is given to him, in a smashing last minute virtuoso speech that hits an emotional peak never afforded Black.  This works out – finally – as a thoroughly involving and satisfying conclusion to what is, up to that point, a fairly one-sided trek, manfully led by the fascinating Beadle.

OK.  So this is one half of the dramatic output of Pulitzer Prize-winning writer, McCarthy.  Heaven only knows what the other play is like.  I’m sure it’s intriguing and perhaps soon, egged on by this plush presentation, somebody will want to hurry it into life on the boards.  We shall have to see.  Meanwhile, this is now your chance to grab a look at this writer’s voice speaking ‘live’ to us in the same room.  Ultimately, it is more than worth your while to be there, even if – along the way – it may seem like a fairly meandering trudge.

Until 29 February 2020

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