BWW Review: THE SUNSET LIMITED, Boulevard Theatre
"What is a true book?" Cormac McCarthy's early attempts to distinguish the nature of fiction in The Sunset Limited are, at the very least, ironic. A programme essay from Joe Penhall suggests the difficulty of the play form is the reason McCarthy has only ever had two performed. To be blunt, it shows.
McCarthy is no doubt best known for The Road, a 2006 post-apocalyptic novel that was adapted into a film in 2009. The problem is that The Sunset Limited feels simply like a novel put on the stage.
White (Jasper Britton), an atheist academic, has been saved by Black (Gary Beadle), a God-fearing ex-con, from jumping in front of a train, the eponymous Sunset Limited. Personalities and beliefs are set up in opposition, and the two are left to talk. As discussions rotate and revolve around various topics with a mostly nihilistic tone, however, a slow creeping feeling of weariness sinks in.
Indeed, in its handling of large themes purely through conversation, The Sunset Limited invites comparison with another piece of a similar nature: Eleanor Burgess's The Niceties, recently at the Finborough Theatre. Yet where subterfuge and a stronger sense of urgency were found in Burgess's work, which also has an academic figure, in McCarthy no such tone emerges.
There's also a worrying amount of self-praise throughout the piece. Black says of White's verbal eloquence "I love that", whilst the latter likewise praises the former during his own moments of summative simplicity. These moments in fact merely highlight the excessive unnaturalness of McCarthy's writing.
However, The Sunset Limited is made a just-enjoyable 90 minutes by its two actors. Gary Beadle's charismatic delivery provides an earnestness that naturally contrasts with Jasper Britton's weariness. Beadle's sonorous accent and charm leads to a natural, sententiae-like comedy that punctures the play's lofty themes.
Britton, stubbled and wearing a tracksuit in an almost archetypal image of the resting academic, bandies his character's weighty words well, delivering lines that could be described as prosaic with enough power to distract audiences from such claims. Showing White's reluctant intrigue in Black, Britton's tired, forlorn and frustrated characterisation somehow succeeds in eliciting our sympathy.
Both performances imply the subtle direction from Terry Johnson. Even if the play's form may be critiqued, the production overall works well. Ben Ormerod's lighting provides some obvious shades of darkness and light, whilst John Leonard's sound design adequately captures the phonic variety of the city, from jazz music to arguing neighbours.
Amidst the sparklingly new Boulevard Theatre, the tired quality of Tim Shortall's set, with its ripped furniture and old kitchen appliances, works well. However, despite the efforts of both actors, one feels that The Sunset Limited may be the Cormac McCarthy road not taken for many.
Photograph credit: Marc Brenner