Thursday, 14 April 2016

Theatre review: The Suicide

2016 definitely likes its comedy dark, and after the serious version as the Almeida used the moving (literally) Boy to look into a young man feeling disenfranchised in modern Britain, the National takes the same subject and plays it for big laughs. Suhayla El-Bushra's The Suicide is an adaptation of a controversial Stalin-era Russian satire by Nikolai Erdman, and sees Javone Prince's affable everyman Sam Desai frustrated after five years without a job, his wife Maya (Rebecca Scroggs) having to support them both, and the two living in her mother Sarah's (Ashley McGuire) flat. When he tries to help a friend he ends up late for the Job Centre, meaning he has his benefits sanctioned and, feeling completely useless, goes to the top of his tower block in the middle of the night, toying with the idea of jumping off.

It's more of a cry for help than a serious attempt, but nobody's ever really alone and he wakes up the next morning to find that he's made the news.

Gil (Michael Karim) has filmed him on his phone and uploaded it to YouTube, and now Sam is inundated with concerned visitors. But they don't want to talk him out of suicide, they want to make sure that when he kills himself they get something out of it. So Erica (Lisa Jackson,) owner of a struggling organic cafe, wants publicity from him eating his last meal there, wannabe rapper Igor (Tom Robertson) wants to make a hit tribute single, social worker Min (Pooky Quesnel) and local Councillor Brian (Pal Aron) want to score political points by blaming the death on each other's failings, and teenager Demetri (Nathan Clarke) wants to cash in by calling himself Sam's manager.

El-Bushra has written a script that's both witty and broadly comic, and Nadia Fall matches it with a production of frantic grotesques: McGuire's randy mother-in-law steals the early scenes - including some surprise nudity with only a strategically-placed armchair stopping us finding out if she really has been "growing it out for a wax." But there's soon many other memorably extreme turns, like Ayesha Antoine's Cleo, a tarty gangster's wife who wants Sam to pretend they've been having an affair, so her husband won't suspect her real lover; and Paul Kaye as Patrick, a trustafarian filmmaker who claims credit for the Arab Spring. Ben Stones' set smoothly takes us around the Clement Attlee estate where the action takes place, concealing a drummer (Sam Jones) in various corners to provide an insistent beat, counting down to the death Sam somehow seems to have agreed to.

There's a warm heart to The Suicide in Prince and Scroggs' relationship as the bickering but loving couple, but despite the second act not quite reaching the comic heights of the first this is a show with a huge amount of detailed work done to wring every possible moment of humour out of the story, and one a lot of whose gags will stick with me: Including the reason Patrick has a tattoo of Margaret Thatcher on his stomach, the reaction of his German partner Ava (Lizzie Winkler) when he mentions the War, and a video cameo from Gunnar Cauthery and Antonia Kinlay as potty-mouthed daytime TV presenters.

And then there's McGuire's appearance as the ghost of Thatcher herself, revealing she's mounted a coup since dying and is now God, because "there's no reason for people not to work just because they're dead." So there's no escaping the brutal political points El-Bushra is making in turning a satire of Stalinism into one of austerity Britain, and among the disturbing truths the high comedy slips through, the most worrying may be how easily the premise translates to its new setting.

The Suicide by Suhayla El-Bushra, based on the play by Nikolai Erdman, is booking in repertory until the 25th of June at the National Theatre's Lyttelton.

Running time: 2 hours 35 minutes including interval.

Photo credit: Johan Persson.

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