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Gripping production of Nobel laureate Albert Camus’ bleakly funny play

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Watching this gripping production of Cross Purpose by Albert Camus, I almost sympathised with the murderous mother and daughter at its heart.

They live a hopeless existence running a dreary, mostly deserted guest house at the foot of a bleak valley – and are in the habit of bumping off their wealthier guests for a few extra pennies. Given their lot, I think I’d be driven to extremes.

It’s an entertaining premise, which Camus treats in quite unexpected ways in a darkly comic and thought-provoking play.

Unlike the guests, the production is full of life, remaining engaging and rarely sagging despite the Nobel laureate’s taste for drawn-out exchanges.

Standing out among a consistently good cast, Jamie Birkett is excellent as daughter Martha; played with a kind of menacing charm, she is the cold-hearted driving force behind the crimes.

A fascinating tug-of-war ensues, with the mother (Christina Thornton) getting tired of all the killing – though more from the exertion required than any moral qualms. The standout scenes see her and Martha thoughtfully but very matter-of-factly discussing their crimes.

The staging is simple but effectively eerie: Martha’s ghost-white complexion, the grim manservant silently drifting on and off stage, the dim lighting and dust-covered furniture. Honestly, their victims really should have seen what was coming.

Matters come to a head when their long-lost son and brother returns after 20 years, convincingly played by David Lomax, all wide-eyed innocence. For no clear reason, he decides to keep his identity hidden after checking in unrecognised.

The play marches inexorably to its miserable conclusion, as any glimmers of hope are cruelly snuffed out. A bleak yet funny show that’s well worth a watch.

* Cross Purpose is at the King’s Head Theatre in Upper Street, N1, until November 11.

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