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Review: The Sunset Limited (Boulevard Theatre)

The play by Pulitzer Prize-winner Cormac McCarthy has its UK premiere

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
Gary Beadle and Jasper Britton in The Sunset Limited
© Marc Brenner

Having opened late last year with Dave Malloy's gorgeous but esoteric supernatural song cycle Ghost Quartet, Soho's tiny theatrical jewel box, the Boulevard, continues its' policy of defiantly left-field programming with this UK premiere of Pulitzer Prize-winning author Cormac McCarthy's challenging talk-piece.

There are shades of Beckett and Mamet in the male-focussed nihilism and austerity of this bleak script, apparently set in a rundown New York tenement apartment immediately after a black ex-convict has stopped a white college professor from leaping to his death in front of a subway train. I say "apparently" because, as the play progresses, it starts to possibly look as though the suicide did in fact go to plan and we are eavesdropping on a conversation in some sort of purgatorial anteroom. McCarthy's opaque text – first seen in Chicago in 2006 and subsequently turned into a film with Samuel L Jackson and Tommy Lee Jones – remains tantalisingly ambiguous on this and several other points.

The characters are named simply 'Black' and 'White' which proves less of a racial statement and more of an indication of their opposing standpoints on the "Big Stuff" such as human suffering, whether suicide is a valid response to life's difficulties, and the relevance and existence of God. Much of it is very interesting and one is left in little doubt as to where the author's allegiances lie (and it's not with Gary Beadle's devout, watchfully chirpy Black).

"The one thing I won't give up is giving up" says the sardonic White (Jasper Britton, painfully convincing) in one of a few comic moments, however bitter, that leaven the existential gloom. The lengthy anecdotes and monologues as each character propounds his viewpoint are beautifully written, but collectively have a slightly deadening effect, as though one should be reading them rather than listening to them in a theatre, despite the technical brilliance of these fine actors. The lack of true drama makes the play feel rather longer than its 95 minutes.

Terry Johnson's production -– from Tim Shortall's atmospherically grimy set to the accomplished lighting and sound designs by Ben Ormerod and John Leonard respectively – is pretty much flawless however. Plus it is hard to imagine another pair of actors inhabiting Black and White with as much skill and commitment as Beadle and Britton. They precisely capture the rhythms of McCarthy's spiky prose and the middle ground it occupies between naturalism and poetically heightened.

Thought-provoking and technically impressive, but frustratingly elliptical as a piece of drama, this feels like an evening that is more to admire than truly engage with. "I yearn for the darkness" says White at one point...by the end of The Sunset Limited, I was starting to feel the same way. See it for the acting.