Monday 15 April 2024

Theatre review: The Comeuppance

Like Appropriate, the last Branden Jacobs-Jenkins play I saw, The Comeuppance also takes a mainstay of American storytelling and gives it a gentle but noticeable tweak. This time it's the high school reunion, and the triumphs and disappointments that hang over people meeting again after years apart. Although in this case the people we meet have stayed in touch to varying degrees, and not just because these reunions have been happening every five years - the upcoming 20th anniversary is the first one successful artist Emilio (Anthony Welsh) has actually returned for, which may be part of the reason his old friendship group have decided to meet for a pre-reunion reunion. They meet on the porch of Ursula's (Tamara Lawrance) house: Having lost the grandmother who raised her and the sight in one eye in quick succession, Ursula has become somewhat reclusive, and isn't planning on following the others to the party itself.

In fact of the six characters, the three women have all stayed in the town they grew up in, while the men have all left: Caitlin (Yolanda Kettle) married a much older man, and has helped raised his kids although she never had any of her own.

Kristina (Katie Leung) joined the Army so they'd put her through medical school, but since qualifying she's returned to work in the local hospital. She arrives with a surprise extra guest, her cousin Paco (Ferdinand Kingsley,) who was never officially part of their gang (they can all agree on this even though they can't agree on whether it was even a gang in the first place, despite having a gang name - MERGE, the Multi-Ethnic Rejects' Group*.) Paco also joined the Army after high school, but instead of a medical degree he got PTSD and spent time homeless in California.

We don't even see the final member as he's had to cancel because of something involving AI in New York - Kingsley also voices Simon when he's put on speakerphone, so at one point he ends up having an argument with himself. But there's also one more character in the story, adding a touch of eerieness that, again like Appropriate, makes me think Jacobs-Jenkins needs to get a ghost story out of his system: An iteration of the Angel of Death occasionally takes over each of the characters in turn to speak directly to the audience in the actors’ real accents, letting us know it’s got business there with one of the characters.

Being me, I naturally ended up trying to figure out which other fictional depiction of Death it most resembled, Discworld or Sandman. Like both it’s a pragmatic figure, neither malevolent nor benevolent but proud of doing a good job, although there’s still something cold about it so it’s not quite Death of the Endless. (Also she finds something to like in everyone she meets whereas this Death definitely has favourites.) In the end I decided it’s somewhere between Death of the Discworld and the world in His Dark Materials where everyone has an individual Death that comes in and out of their lives, becoming an old friend by the time their eventual function is needed. Even if it’s a one-sided friendship here as the living (mostly) don’t know it’s there.

It’s part of what helps this feel different from a generic High School Reunion story. There are, of course, the revelations about the personal baggage or trauma each of them has accrued to varying degrees – as well as the more extreme examples like Paco’s PTSD and Ursula’s eyesight we have Caitlin’s depression from her difficulty having children, and Emilio’s success coming with a side of loneliness. The otherworldly presence only the audience knows about solidifies the melancholy – but never depressing, this is beautifully balanced between comedy and sadness and never tips over into misery porn - story about a time in life when the effects of ageing first start to really become apparent. The titular comeuppance isn’t something dramatic but the general sense that little mistakes in the past are starting to creep up on them and have consequences.

The presence of Death also fits into other themes like the deconstruction of the nostalgia for the teenage years that is such a staple of Americana – most of the actual memories they have from High School involve them responding to news horror stories like Columbine and 9/11, as well as more recent trauma: The story’s set in 2022 and Kristina’s developed an alcohol problem following her time as a doctor during the pandemic. The Comeuppance feels like a properly nuanced response to Covid, neither a quick reaction to the events nor ignoring them, but taking place firmly in a post-Covid world which is the same but different. Natasha Chivers’ lighting and Arnulfo Maldonado’s set of a small house that feels ever so slightly separate from the rest of the world, all help add a dreamy quality to Eric Ting’s production; this is a mix of realism and magic that just works, never showy but always keeping you hooked.

The Comeuppance by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins is booking until the 18th of May at the Almeida Theatre.

Running time: 2 hours 5 minutes straight through.

Photo credit: Marc Brenner.

*they also can't agree on whether the second E stood for anything or not

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