Review: In Camera

This production ‘translated fascinating philosophical treatise into a very watchable 90 minutes of drama’, says PHOEBE LUCKHURST.

Corpus Playrooms Ella Jones In Camera Satre

16th – 20th February, 9.30 at the Corpus Playrooms. 

Directed by Ella Jones. 

Sometimes, in the vein of time-honoured proverb, you wish for the ground to swallow you up. For example, when purchasing my ticket for In Camera next door at the Cambridge Arts Theatre. I was wittering on about a Ben Jonson play I had read. Volpone, if you're interested. I handed over a crisp fiver and continued wittering, when the usher asked, 'Do you mean Volpone?' Well. Turns out it's pronounced Volpon-ay. "Ha! She's an English student!" my companion chortled. Being gobbled up by the maws of doom would have been quite welcome at this point.

I was not quite gobbled – rather, selected my seat with my companions, waving awkwardly at people I could see sitting in the row across from mine – but I certainly found myself in a Hell of sorts, specifically Ella Jones' incarnation of Jean-Paul Sartre's. I had already had a run-in with Tom Pye's Valet, who met us as we walked in, hunched, with the sort of wide, vacant grin that is infinitely more discomfiting than the stony appraisal that one might expect in a hellish minion. Take that encounter, just moments after the usher's withering put-down and the consequent taunts of my companion and I was pretty ready to believe that, 'Hell is other people.'

In Camera introduces three, recently deceased – or, as Laurie Stevens' Estelle euphemises, 'absentees' – characters, hack and lothario, Garscin (Alex Wetten), self-confessed, 'damned bitch', Inez (Megan Roberts), and the flightly, flirty, foolish Estelle. Having died – or, become 'absent' from life – they find themselves escorted by Pye's Valet to a sparse hotel room, with sufficient seating arrangements for everyone but little else.

Each enters convinced that one of the others is a hellish minion in the Valet's ilk, responsible for their torture in the underworld in the ilk of Dante's Divine Comedy or that episode of The Simpson's where Homer is locked to a chair and forced to eat donuts forever. It soon transpires however, that their punishment is each other; in turns the trio must reveal the sins that damned them and receive judgement. Hence, Hell is other people. Easy.

The Corpus Playrooms is an ideal space for a play that has been defined by this particular aphorism; as you watch the characters squirm out of revelations and quarrel with one other, the logistics of the Playrooms (i.e. the possibility of observing the faces of those in the rows that sit at a right angle to your own) makes you very aware of how others are responding to the premise Sartre has depicted on stage. Megan Roberts was my highlight, playing the caustic Inez with aplomb; Wetten was suitably conflicted; Stevens mildly irritating as the petulant Estelle, but I think that was the point. Sartre's dialogue is challenging, but the actors rose, with a few first night nerves, to the occasion valiantly. There were even a few moments of humour – or rather, black humour – which served to cement a sort of comradeship between the audience, reminding one that there is a sort of universality of the human experience in terms of the knowledge that we are all going to die, none of us knows exactly what happens, and everyone knows at least one person with whom, were they to find themselves trapped in the afterlife, they would want to die again.

Sartre was never going to be easy, and it certainly didn't warm the cockles of my heart. There could have been more pace, but then again, this was eternal damnation, so that is a particularly subjective comment that might have something to do with me needing the loo for the last half hour. Ella Jones' production translated fascinating philosophical treatise into a very watchable 90 minutes of drama, with strong performances, a well-conceived set and an atmospheric momentum.