The less you have to show, the more you need to say. Second Skin Theatre, resident company at the White Rabbit Cocktail Bar, have little space to work in. The basement theatre is tiny, there is no backstage and the packed audience of around twenty fill more than half the room. Sartre's Huis Clos seems almost the perfect fit for this claustrophobic arena; it has a cast of only four and plays out over a single act in a single space with almost minimal props. Yet in spite of some committed performances, and the intensity added by these intimate surroundings, it oddly lacks focus.
Sartre's text continues to be revived mainly thanks to its wonderful premise (that hell may consist simply in being surrounded by other people). The philosophical underpinnings to the idea – that the gaze of others forces people to reflect on their own actions and subsequent powerlessness – is usually lost (not simply because the idea is, whisper it, a touch banal) but because the characters Sartre has written seem so unpleasant that you may conclude simply that misanthropy is to blame.
This is especially true of his female characters, whose depictions leave my inner feminist curled up in front of the telly, whimpering for Ben & Jerry's Chocolate Fudge Indulgence. Ines (Charly Flyte) is a predatory lesbian, who is unashamedly cruel, while Estelle (Eloise Black) is unintelligent and completely dependent on male attention. Yet Eloise Black excels by somehow evoking sympathy for a character that a less capable actor would make easy to despise. She shows how Estelle's haughtiness betrays her sense of vulnerability, while her sensuality is laced with spite. By contrast Charly Flyte as Ines seems miscast; though she captures Ines' anger and cruelty, her jealousy and loneliness are less clearly rendered.
George Collie has a more credibly human role as Garcin. As the outwardly cynical hack who wants to be thought a model of personal self-mastery, Collie captures much of his character's complex mix of neediness, selfishness and battered pride. Though he swallows the odd line his performance is well-paced and intelligent.
Even so the actors are frequently left dangling by direction which seems to lack much attention to detail. So many speeches are delivered directly to the audience in the same static style, at much the same pitch, that they become monotonous and indistinguishable. Meanwhile the costumes and set, whatever the constraints of budget, are incongruously mismatched, and offer no sense of period. If deliberate this is a misjudgement because Sartre's script, even putting the gender politics aside, feels dated. If written today the characters would surely bemoan the loss of their mobile phones – selfies and social-networks – rather than their pocket mirrors?
When the cast bring light to Huis Clos' most interesting moments, the play suddenly feels ripe for fresh interpretation. And yet by the end the audience, like Sartre's sinners, are still waiting.