Cross Purpose, King's Head Theatre, London


“I'd expected a welcome like the Prodigal Son's,” confesses Jan, the man who – in Camus' 1944 play Cross Purpose – returns home after twenty years of making his fortune abroad. But there's no sniff of a fatted calf for him in this pointedly pitiless inversion of the parable.

His mother and sister, an embittered duo dedicated to the task of getting on each other's nerves, fail to recognise him when he checks into the little hotel they run in this Central European backwater. 

To the dismay of his wife, Jan elects to remain incognito and “let things take their course”. It's a fatal decision because his relations just happen to be saving up for their much-desired escape to a world of sunshine and sea by bumping off wealthy male visitors.

In Sondheim's Sweeney Todd, Mrs Lovett envisages a rosy future as a proprietor of a B & B: “Have a nice sunny suite for the guest to rest in/Now and then you could do the guest in/By the sea”.

Cross Purpose has flashes of macabre humour in that vein – as when the mother and daughter qualmlessly  discuss their drugging-and-drowning activities as a sort of humanitarian service, saving folk from the fate of actual suicides “who didn't have luck and threw themselves into the water with their eyes open”.

But mostly the piece is unintentionally funny – a grotesque incident bloated into a ponderous Existentialist sermon on the meaninglessness of life.

Jenny Gamble's striking set for Stephen Whitson's valiant revival turns the glum establishment (described in the text as “spick and span”) into a subjective Gothic nightmare of blotched, dust-ridden emotional neglect.

A prospective guest would take one look at this place and move heaven and earth to switch bookings to Bates Motel.  Jamie Birkett is made up to look like Morticia Addams on a bad day, but her performance is transfixing for the right reasons as she signals the trapped and thwarted spirit that underlines the eerie, willed heartlessness and vicious, resentful tirades.  And she interacts beautifully in a deathly symbiosis Paddy Navin's world-weary Mother. 

David Lomax struggles, though, with the impossible role of the well-meaning, disastrously indecisive Max whose troubled prevarications aren't given a convincing psychological or moral basis. With its glaringly contrived set-up and laboured dialogue that often smacks of a philosophy seminar, Cross Purpose is like an unwitting spoof of facile nihilism – not so much Absurd as absurd. 

To February 2; 0207 478 0160