Sunset Limited

Review - The Sunset Limited at the Boulevard Theatre

Mark Shenton
Mark Shenton

We inevitably each bring a lot of baggage to this thing called life, just as we do to this thing called going to the theatre. And some plays speak to us (or about us) more personally than is perhaps comfortable, which makes them resonate all the more powerfully. Such is the case with The Sunset Limited, a play about a middle-aged college professor who is saved from the brink of throwing himself in front of a subway train by a stranger. This fellow commuter then brings him back to his Manhattan tenement home for what turns out to be part philosophical discussion on the nature (and possible futility) of existence, and part a beautiful outreach of the hand of humanity in trying to rescue a lost soul.

In a bit of personal disclosure, I watched this play while suffering in the midst of an ongoing depression of my own, and therefore I identified hugely with the character who can only see hopelessness and pointlessness in life - but I also cling to the hope, however bleak, that there is a larger purpose in this current suffering and that this, too, shall pass, so I am also able to recognise the efforts of the other character to try to save him. 

No wonder I was deeply moved by this brooding, painfully-wrought play, and applaud the new Boulevard Theatre for offering the British premiere of a play that premiered at Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre in 2006 before transferring to Off-Broadway's 59 E59 Street Theatre later that year. In only the second in-house production at this intimate new West End studio space, which opened last year with another import from Off-Broadway of the musical Ghost Quartet (which I reviewed here), it is already putting out its stall to produce challenging, provocative work. 

One of only two plays written by the American novelist Cormac McCarthy (who won the Pulitzer prize for his 2006 book The Road), he has been described as "America's greatest living writer". On the evidence of this work, he's not America's greatest living playwright - it betrays its literary origins, with the published version of the play even subtitled "a novel in dramatic form" - but even if it's driven by dialogue and discussion rather than action, there's a compellingly real sense of anguish, distress and helplessness as it proceeds.

This is beautifully communicated in Terry Johnson's tight, taut production on this intimate stage in performances of wrenching feeling. Jasper Britton's sullen, halting White - the man saved from the brink of the abyss, namely the edge of the subway platform but who may well return there (and soon) - is hauntingly withdrawn, but coldly logical as he lays out the reasons for his despair: in a line quoted in Joe Penhall's programme introduction, he says, "Evolution cannot avoid bringing intelligent life ultimately to an awareness of one thing above all else and that one thing is futility." And despite the best efforts to persuade him otherwise by Gary Beadle's kindly ex-con Black, he is determined to cling onto that belief: "The one thing I won't give up is giving up."

That's not necessarily a message I wanted to hear in my current condition. But I do respect and understand where that desire comes from. Yet the forthrightness and power with which this play articulates that position leaves me feeling not quite so alone -- and determined to continue. So the character may call for the release of death - at one point he says, "I yearn for the darkness, I pray for death. Real Death. If I thought that in death I would meet the people I've known in life I don't know what I'd do. That would be the ultimate horror" - the play calls for me to survive, as his saviour (both the one in the human form of Black and the spiritual sense of a God) would have him do.  

The Sunset Limited is at the Boulevard Theatre until 29th January. 

The Sunset Limited tickets are available now.

Originally published on

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