Jean Paul Sartre's classic exploration of existential tension is the origin of the phrase 'hell is other people'. The play depicts three recently deceased ill-matched liars - Garcin, Estelle and Innez - trapped in the same room, seemingly forever, as their form of punishment. What emerges is that their need for each other's faith and therefore self definition by proxy is what is really holding them there.
The claustrophobic and yet airy lock down of the Playhouse's performance space (increasingly rendered with a flexibility that rivals the Young Vic's ambitious production designs) behind the railway arches of London Bridge suited this sense of controlled freedom, of being neither dead nor alive, abandoned in purgatory, with its combination of stained brick walls and bare light bulbs that flashed whenever a voice commanded from a rusting tannoy above. The stylish costumes too - reminding us of late 60s minimalist Film Noir such as L'armee des ombres and Le Cercle rouge - were very effective in placing these displaced people whilst hinting their reality maybe fictional, that they are in self-denial.
Unfortunately the production itself lacked the dramatic intensity required to set the scene for Sartre's comments to be effective. The heavy Spanish accent of Miguel Oyarzun - playing Garcin whom the audience spend a lot of time with before the other two are deposited - made it difficult to understand what was going on, despite a strong stage presence.
Lines seemed to be thrown away at times and there was no overall narrative drive essential for modernist morality tales such as Sartre's. Only Alexis Terry - playing the vain Estelle - managed to capture a true sense of panic / concern from the audience as she wrestled with her guilt over past sins only to have our sympathies dashed in the final moments as we realised just how shallow she really is.
Director Luke Kernaghan saw resonances within the text with los desaparecidos of Argentina's dirty war and yes the idea of being held unaccountably, the characters creeping recognition of their fate and being haunted by memories of those still 'living' all ring true, as does the inhabitants increasingly desperate attempt to work out / confess what they did wrong - though that is where the similarities end.
No Way Out is at the Southwark Playhouse until 12th December, tickets £18-8, see www.southwarkplayhouse.co.uk
Picture credits l-r Ines (Elisa De Grey), (Estelle) Alexis Terry, Garcin (Miguel Oyarzun), photographer Marc Antoni.