"This is a beautiful and very welcome hour of theatre."

London Theatre 1

In Pilot Theatre’s excellent re-imagining of this iconic story, a fresh spin is put on a famous narrative. Often used in popular culture to depict an outsider or someone who feels distanced from their surroundings, L’Etranger by Albert Camus is a dark, simple (ish) story about a man, Meursault who seems indifferent to the world and is punished for both his crimes and his refusal to play the game.

In the novel, Meursault does not grieve at his mothers’ funeral, instead he starts an affair with Marie. He is complicit in an act of violence against an unnamed ‘Arab woman’ and then on a hot Algerian beach he shoots and murders her brother. He is imprisoned and ultimately punished but seems to feel nothing.

In Hussain’s version the Arab characters are named and all the emotions that Meursault failed to exhibit are experienced by the two women whose lives were devastated by the events of the beach shooting. She brings emotion and humanity to a story about inhumanity and indifference – and she does it with style.

We meet Marie, Meursaults fiancĂ© – played with fortitude and optimism by Lou Broadbent. Marie is determined to think the best of her lover, to ignore evidence to the contrary, to find excuses for him. She’s a woman in love and a woman whose loyalty is total. Both Hussain’s writing and Broadbent’s performance bring a vulnerability and delusion to Marie that make her compelling and heart breaking. Her eyes sparkle with confusion and we sense that she knows more than she would care to admit, even to herself.

Sara Sadeghi plays a defiant, hurt and questioning Sumaya bringing her fully to life. Her brother has been murdered and she wants revenge and justice, but mostly she wants answers and maybe some sort of acknowledgment from Maria. She coaxes, complains and explains, and Sadeghi’s Sumaya tugs on our heartstrings. She has been beaten and lost her brother, she lives her life being brutalised daily, being rejected by her own land. Marie too is eventually rejected, for standing by her lover, for refusing to see that he is different – but even then she struggles to see how she and Sumaya are the same.

There are so many current issues resonating within this story, from immigration to racism to knife crimes and beach shootings, that it’s easy to see why Pilot Theatre have chosen to stage this now. This is about how some lives are perceived to be valued more than others, how some people are seen as worthless and outcast, how people who are born on the same land can turn against each other and still concentrate so hard on what divides them rather than their similarities. It’s about people trying to fit in a world that refuses to let them, and how merciless and arbitrary that brutality can seem sometimes – but how the consequences for those involved are life changing.

The dialogue is moving and playful and abundant with fantastic imagery. The direction by Fraser Cornfield keeps pace and theatricality without overshadowing the story or intruding on the feeling of the piece. There’s some simple but effective playing of other characters by the women – but it’s done with grace and so doesn’t flip you out of the story, rather it adds to the depth of the women – they see everything, they understand everything, but they are powerless to intervene.

The classy lighting and set create a sense of somewhere hot and distanced, but the real strength of this play is showing us the flip side of a story of detachment and separation. Meursault might have been numb to a meaningless universe, but this is a play filled with emotion. And it races along, with hardly a moment when we’re not completely absorbed. This is a beautiful and very welcome hour of theatre.