The Sunset Limited review: Fine performances in intellectually strenuous play

Marc Brenner
Marc Brenner

If you’re having dinner in the spanking new Boulevard Theatre’s restaurant before Cormac McCarthy’s play, it might be best to have just the one glass of wine. The Sunset Limited is a fluent, chewy but demanding argument about faith and nihilism from the author of The Road and No Country for Old Men.

It’s conducted between a black and a white man named Black and White, each with the sketchiest of backstories, sitting around a fleapit American apartment. The fine performances in Terry Johnson’s tightly focused production, and the quality of the writing, lift it above the level of dry philosophical discourse. But you certainly can’t accuse the Boulevard’s artistic director Rachel Edwards of programming crowd-pleasers

White (Jasper Britton), a professor, tried to throw himself under the titular train that runs between New Orleans and San Francisco. Black (Gary Beadle), a born again ex-con and ex-alcoholic, saved him and now has him under benign house arrest. Can he convince White of his own worth and of God’s love?

Black is the showier part, combining a preacher’s zeal with a hustler’s sly wit. Beadle makes him warm, ebullient, a charismatic yarn-spinner. Britton’s White is a shifty, pasty misanthrope. He has lost his sustaining belief in art and culture and thinks civilisation died “in the chimneys of Dachau”, but still primly reprimands Black for using the ‘n’ word. He’s gets the best speech towards the end, an elegant, passionate hymn to death. It sounds like McCarthy speaking.

Indeed, throughout, it feels like we are peering inside the author’s head. It is not a hospitable place. McCarthy heaps burdens on Black: two dead sons, a murder (mentioned, then forgotten), a prison maiming, junkie neighbours. And he isolates White completely: no family, no friends - we don’t even really know what his job is.

The wilful elusiveness is frustrating. But McCarthy doesn’t care about our boring expectations of character or action. For him its all about the elegance and rigour of the debate, and of course, about who wins. His play is not without rewards, but you need to be match fit for an intellectually strenuous evening. Seriously.

Until 29 Feb (020 3968 6849,