There's a bit of Steptoe and Son at first - the frustrated offspring and the passive-aggressive parent, both trapped by circumstance and psychological need in a dusty, gloomy home. Martha (Jamie Birkett), made up like Morticia Addams as played by Theda Bara, but scowling, scowling, scowling at the hand the world has dealt her and longing, longing, longing for escape from a MittelEuropa valley, hemmed in by mountains and complacency. She wants the sun, the sand and the sex that the coast promises. Her Mother (Christina Thornton) has other thoughts and they both know it.
Martha's prayers are answered when a rich young man (David Lomax), all Hugh Grantish charm and lean-limbed tanned exotic otherness, turns up and takes a room. Having bumped off a few such men before, through the tried and trusted "dope the tea and pitch him in the river" method, Martha sees his wallet as her ticket to ride and persuades her mother to give it a go - for old times' sake. He doesn't know that he's in the presence of murderers and they don't know they are in the presence of their long departed brother / son, Jan, unrecognised 20 years on. And this being a work by Albert Camus, nobody ever cares quite enough to find out the truth.
Cross Purpose (at The King's Head until 11 November) is a disorienting, dismaying and very funny play, a more than worthy addition to the black comedies dotted all over autumnal Austerity London. I was immediately catapulted back 30 years to the time I read Camus' celebrated novel L’Étranger - in the midst of a roiling sea of emotions, characters claim to be free of such frivolous concerns, even in the most tragic and dangerous circumstances. Are we to laugh or cry?
Jamie Birkett is astonishing as Martha - vicious and vulnerable, sordid and seductive, damaged and destructive. Ms Birkett's greatest strength is to let us feel sympathy for this murderer, even as she expounds sincerely held beliefs devoid of any empathy for her victims. She gets wonderful support from David Lomax as Jan, whose naivety is utterly believable even in a man of the world. Christina Thornton as The Mother is world-weary, but just thrilled enough by the prospect of one last transgression that she is roused to action and Mellssanthi Mahut is passionate as Jan's wife, Martha's alter-ego, the woman from the land of sun and sea who speaks the a truth unsullied by festering hate. Leonard Fenton, is hilarious as the omniscient servant, whose moving in mysterious ways is explained in the only six words he speaks.
Under Stephen Whitson's direction, on a tiny, largely dark stage, the genius of Camus is brought forth by actors at the peak of their powers, forcing us to look at the world in a way that makes us uncomfortable, yet also strangely pleased that our lives are so distant from the absurdities presented for our amusement.
Or are they?