The Theatreguide.London Review
Almeida Theatre Autumn 2009
Odon von Horvath's 1937 drama is about guilt, individual and collective. A Calvinist sense of universal sin hangs over the play, even in a fast-moving new adaptation by Christopher Hampton, making the just-under-2-hours-without-interval pretty heavy going.
The stationmaster of a provincial town is briefly distracted by a flirtatious girl and misses a signal, causing a train crash. The girl lies for him and he is declared innocent, but both he and the girl are haunted by guilt.
This personal drama is played out against the backdrop of a village driven by gossip and petty enmities, with loyalties constantly in flux, and everyone sure that everyone else, and quite possibly themselves, is deserving of divine punishment for something.
And that's really about it.
The town busybodies unite in favour of, then against, then for, then against the stationmaster and anyone who was for when they were against or against when they were for.
The stationmaster feels pretty good when he thinks he's got away with it, and pretty bad when the guilt-stricken girl reawakens his conscience.
Things get murkily supernatural and then even more murkily allegorical toward the end, but essentially everybody who feels they ought to be punished is, in one way or another, and everybody who isn't punished just gets to wait until their time comes.
Neither adapter Hampton nor director James Macdonald is able to make the play amount to much more than that, either in making the personal stories seem meaningful or in finding larger resonances to the vaguely Calvinist vision.
Joseph Millson works hard at the central character, but he has been directed to play him as such a personality-less stick that there is little there for us to relate to, and none of the other characters rises above stereotype.
An ingenious revolving set by Miriam Buether keeps threatening to be more interesting than anything happening on it.
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