Jean-Paul Sartre makes his Fringe debut: a review of No Exit

Belinda Cornish, Ron Pederson, Louise Lambert in No Exit. Photo by Ryan Parker.

By Liz Nicholls,

No Exit (Stage 12, Varscona Theatre)

In one way it’s the ne plus ultra of roommate plays: remember those completely incompatible losers you were trapped with for a whole term who are probably in jail by now?

What if the term lasted for … eternity?

Hell is not some fiery brimstone gulag, presided over by torturers.  “Hell is other people,” proposes the French existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre in his ruthlessly witty and geometric 1944 one-act No Exit. And there’s nothing random about those other people: they’re chosen, with exquisitely torturing precision, to be each other’s mirrors.

In the Bright Young Things production directed by Kevin Sutley, a panicky man in a formal suit (Ron Pederson) arrives in hell, a followed by a bellhop (George Szilagyi) with a strangely fixed smile. “So this is it” is both question and answer.

In life Cradeau was a journalist. And you’d think there’d be other professionals there. Not in this play. Two other arrivals follow: Inez (Belinda Cornish), a cold, hard-eyed, brisk, sardonic secretary; and Estelle (Louise Lambert), a coquettish socialite in full evening regalia who tips the bellhop out of habit.

In the hour that follows, a kind of lethal philosophical drawing room comedy, the facades with which each faced the world on earth will get peeled away. Their moral evasions and self-justifications will be shattered. The terrible crimes that each committed — their tickets to hell — will be revealed, And it will transpire, as Inez gleans faster than her roommates, that the three are uniquely qualified to be each other’s torturers.

Cradeau, for example, is desperate to be validated against the charge of cowardice; Estelle can’t reassure him since she’s a sensualist and attaches more importance to kissing than cowardice. Only Inez, who sees right through his moral dodges, can do that. And she hates him. But, oh, she desires Estelle, who desires Cradeau….

And so it goes. Every possible angle and alliance is tested, for some respite from the torture of being seen for what one really is — and gets foiled, or rejected, or cancelled out. It’s a perfect triangle of torture, played out by an excellent trio of actors in Sutley’s tight, tense, detailed production. 

An arresting hour of tensile theatre.

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