Albert Camus is not generally regarded as a writer of black comedy. Indeed, the underlying theme of Cross Purpose (also known as The Misunderstanding) is no laughing matter, but AM Media Productions' presentation of this Stuart Gilbert translation treats us to an extremely chilling tale with unexpected moments of light relief. This play has never been well received since it was written in 1944 but this interpretation has almost certainly invigorated it. Of course, more suspension of disbelief than usual is required, but then this has been penned by the modern master of absurdism.

It's not a laugh a minute, that's for sure. Martha and her mother run a squalid hotel in some mid-European backwater. They have been surviving by plundering the assets of visiting single men whom they then kill with poisoned tea before dragging their bodies to the river. Jan, their brother and son, returns from a successful life in Bohemia after a 20-year absence to surprise them but persuades Maria, his wife of five years, despite her protestations, to stay elsewhere so he can get re-acquainted with them first. Checking in under a false name, he is clearly not recognised, but having demonstrated his wealth early on, he is served his toxic brew before he's even been able to get his first night's kip. He's promptly dispatched whereupon the discovery of his true identity is revealed. In a state of guilt, mother commits suicide in the very same river while Martha attempts to follow suit but not before she gives Maria, who's returned to discover Jan's fate, her personal words of wisdom, leaving her distraught in the hands of the hotel's manservant – who offers her no consolation whatsoever.

Tim Adnitt's soundscape of wind, rain, chiming, screeching, and howling animals conjures up an air of menace. Its underscoring throughout reinforces the idea that the internal refuge of the inn is secure but we already know of the sinister goings-on. The dusty staid surroundings of the hotel lobby and bedroom (later revealed through the simple raising of a dingy curtain) complete with paintings askew, faithfully depict years of neglect in a dirty ochre set designed by Jenny Gamble. Ilona Russell's costumes perfectly contrast the hotel "staff's" shabby and colourless attire of yesteryear with the modern bright clothing of prosperity and contentment of the visitors. All of this is perfectly complemented by Philip Hunter's subtle yet eerie mood lighting; mostly dark with effective low-level beams of light casting sombre shadows against the bleak walls.

It is surely down to a combination of expert direction by Stephen Whitson and the skill of the five actors, whose intensity lifts each of these characters from the page. Jamie Birkett as grim and sallow Martha is nothing short of outstanding, and at the time of writing, I note she has been nominated for Best Actress in the Off West End Awards for this role – well deserved indeed. Flashes of humanity sneak in when she voices her idyllic dreams of being by the sea, away from the confines of the mother she blames for her thus-far virginal life. The overriding sense of stoicism and resolute manner is present in an impassioned monologue, becoming particularly callous once she realises it's her brother's demise that has sent Mother into a spiral of regret and is yet more ruthless when taunting her erstwhile sister-in-law with the futility of grief.

Christina Thornton assumes the role of a seemingly caring mother, less embittered but more methodical with her amoral pursuits. She conveys a balanced measure of bewilderment at her inadequacies and remorse following her actions; heartbreaking, given that she acknowledges she has "relieved Jan of the burden of life" and so must take her own.

David Lomax as Jan gives a restrained, somewhat ethereal performance as the prodigal son returning. There is always joy in his eyes at having this secret up his sleeve; ready to spring it on his sibling when checking in by offering his passport, which having been refused sounds his death knell. Juxtaposed to him, Mellissanthi Mahut is the lovestruck foreign wife Maria, her evident frustration at his insistence to prolong the reunion and ultimately inconsolable when faced with the news of his merciless death.

But what made this an exemplary production for me was the sheer scene-stealing delight of 86-year-old Leonard Fenton as the Manservant. Unashamedly doddery and with a fixed miserable demeanor, he plodded back and forth and round the stage, mute until the very final scene. With the privilege of not only the last line, but also the last laugh, this left me with no doubt I had witnessed an absurdly beautiful and horrifying piece of theatre that would have made Camus proud.

Cross Purpose, at King's Head, IslingtonJoe Crystal reviews Albert Camus' Cross Purpose, in AM Media Productions' performance at the King's Head Theatre, Islington.5