I went in to Cross Purpose embarrassingly unfamiliar with the work of French playwright and philosopher Albert Camus, and came out understanding even less. This production is possibly unique in managing to feel both over- and underdeveloped, a piece which takes interesting ideas on love and death, and suffocates them with confused and stilted costume, stage direction and line delivery.
Martha, a spinster bitter beyond her years, and her elderly mother run a dilapidated boarding house in an undisclosed central European country. They make ends meet by doing away with their traveller guests – poisoning them and then dumping their corpses in the river – aided by their silent manservant. When Martha’s brother Jan arrives home after twenty years’ absence, and under alias, he is the latest to receive the mother-daughter treatment. Maria, Jan’s wife, soon comes looking, only to be told by Martha, with all the delicacy of a sledgehammer, that she and Mother have murdered him. Laugh-a-minute this ain’t.
Jamie Birkett has been nominated for Best Female at the Offies for her portrayal of Martha, and this is well deserved. Birkett’s Martha radiates a venomous and menacing facade, a defence mechanism to disguise her longing to escape the claustrophobic clutches of her mother. It is a shame, therefore, that Birkett’s strong performance is undermined by unnecessarily heavy makeup, which gives her the unfortunate appearance of having a five o’clock shadow, and an overly gothic costume that makes her look likes she’s auditioning for Sweeney Todd. The relationship between Birkett and Paddy Navin as Mother is morbidly fascinating to watch; theirs is a game of one-upmanship, each always attempting to outdo the other’s most recent acidic remark or raised eyebrow.
It is clear that David Lomax is a good actor, yet his performance as Jan felt constrained; Lomax appeared to recite his lines rather than live or feel them. I’d be inclined to give the benefit of the doubt to Lomax, though, and believe the fault rests with Stuart Gilbert’s translation. This felt over-complicated; Lomax was forced to explain every movement, every emotion, without letting his face and body do the work. The same could be said for Kemi-Bo Jacobs as the beautiful wife Maria. Jacobs, a recent LAMDA graduate, can definitely act, but was forced to spend the time pacing up and down describing every thought instead. Maria’s costume, which made her look like she’d just escaped from a panto chorus line, was thoroughly confusing – why, if Jan and Maria are meant to have made successes of their lives, are they dressed in mud-sodden rags? Leonard Fenton as the manservant is perplexing as well, his role in the play never really clear. I willed him to become a pivotal character but he appeared totally surplus to requirements.
Making the most of its layout, the setting and staging is suitably atmospheric. I liked the fraying and stained wallpaper, the mismatched and wonky paintings, and the dust that seemed to explode out of every turned page or folded towel was a nice touch (just beware if you sit in the front row). The production definitely has something to offer, but just seems unsure how best to offer it. If harsh gothic realism is your thing, though, I’m sure you’ll enjoy Cross Purpose.
Cross Purpose is playing at the King’s Head Theatre until 2 February. For more information and tickets, see the King’s Head Theatre website.