Writer: Cormac McCarthy
Director: Terry Johnson
Despite a masterclass in acting, Cormac McCarthy’s The Sunset Limited, playing in Soho’s newest theatre, remains static and ponderous. Two men, one a failed suicide, the other a born-again Christian, discuss the existence of Jesus in a two-hander that lacks drama.
A white man, played here by Jasper Britton, is ‘a terminal commuter’, a man who, minutes before the play starts, almost threw himself in front of a train, the Sunset Limited of the title. Instead, he finds himself in the strong arms of a black man (Gary Beadle) who believes it his mission to offer salvation. The men, named as Black and White in the script, sit at Black’s table, debating whether the Bible between them tells a true story.
A play with Christian faith at its hearts sits uncomfortably in the middle of secular London. The Sunset Limited feels simultaneously too old-fashioned and too American in a theatre that was once home to pornographer Paul Raymond’s Revue Bar, the epicentre of the swinging and salacious Sixties.
The play is slow, but the two actors are excellent. As White, Britton is exasperated and numb in equal measures, only coming alive when he explains the reasons why he wants to die. Hunched up and doomed it’s easy to sympathise with this urban Everyman.
Black, impressively played by Beadle, is a more complex character to represent; it’s harder to play someone with absolute faith as theatre and novels are already full of people with doubts. Beadle brings some gentle comedy to the role, but still manages to portray glimmers of his violent past that led to him being locked up in the ‘jailhouse.’
Terry Johnson directs, and keeps the pair mainly at the table as they trade their versions of the world. Refreshingly, there’s no shouting and in the tight auditorium of the Boulevard Theatre the conversation feels intimate and close at hand. Tim Shortall’s set, a tiny New York apartment, is filled with red-browns and burgundies, and these colours extend to the tracksuit that White wears. In these red hues the two men seem cocooned in an endless dusk, far from the rest of the world.
At 90 minutes McCarthy’s play is too long especially as the theological conversation goes nowhere, only in circles. But it’s a brilliant showcase for these two talented actors.
Runs until 29 February 2020