Christmas Eve review – fizzling thriller feels like tuning in too late to Spooks

Judith, a philosophy professor, is on her way to her parents’ house for Christmas when she is stopped by the police, taken to a basement and interrogated by a man named Thomas. “What do you want from me?” she asks. Surely this respected, quietly spoken, neatly dressed, middle-aged woman can’t be any kind of threat? Writing a paper on Frantz Fanon and the concept of revolutionary violence is not a crime. Nor is travelling to South America in your youth and espousing leftwing politics.

It is positively creepy just how much information Thomas and the state have gathered about Judith. He knows that yesterday she spent the hours between 2.30pm and 11.52pm with her ex-husband. He knows about a document on her laptop that appears to be a manifesto heralding an act of violence that will take place at midnight. Is the document, as Judith claims, an innocent exercise for a teaching seminar? Perhaps it doesn’t matter how the state got the information, because keeping people safe is more important.

The Mentor, which was seen at Bath’s Ustinov studio earlier this year and briefly transferred to the West End, introduced UK audiences to the German playwright Daniel Kehlmann. But this perfunctory two-hander by Kehlmann, in a translation by Christopher Hampton, feels a bit like being dropped too late into an episode of Spooks, and is unlikely to enhance Kehlmann’s reputation. Initially, the Kafkaesque set-up is intriguing, but the complete lack of backstory means that our engagement with the characters is minimal.

Photograph: Simon Annand

Patrick Baladi and Niamh Cusack are undeniably impressive, negotiating the switchbacks and standoffs with the skill of chess players plotting their endgame. You are interested in their next moves but you are never really interested in the characters themselves. Laurence Boswell’s production is oddly devoid of tension, despite the clock on the wall counting down to midnight.

The writing sets up an intelligent debate, but dramatised debate is not lively theatre. This is a potentially fascinating moral thriller but it fizzles towards its conclusion rather than explodes.

At the Ustinov studio, Bath, until 18 November. Box office: 01225 4488.

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