The Theatreguide.London Review
Lyttelton Theatre Spring-Summer 2016
A modern multiethnic Britain adaptation of a Soviet-era Russian farce has got to have some curiosity value at least, and if it runs out of comic steam too long before the end, it offers at least half an evening's naughty delight.
Nikolai Erdman's 1928 satire so troubled Soviet officials, more for its generally irreverent attitude than for any specific details, that the question of whether to censor it went all the way up to Stalin himself. (Though Stalin didn't particularly care, it was ultimately banned.)
In Erdman's play a poor nobody decides to kill himself, only to have everyone from neighbours to government officials converge on him – not to stop him, but to beg him to announce he is doing it as a protest for their various causes.
In Suhayla El-Bushra's version Sam is mildly depressed and goes to the roof of his council block to think. A neighbour teen films him on his phone, and almost instantly the 'Would-be Suicide Pussies Out' video goes viral.
The various comic types who queue up to co-opt Sam now have the double job of attaching their wagons to his star and convincing him to go through with it in the first place.
The first act of this comedy is devoted to the scattershot but entertaining ridicule of the various visitors. A social worker wants him to protest against government cuts, while a local politician needs him to act particularly crazy to demonstrate the failures of the social workers.
A radical filmmaker plans a fly-on-the-wall documentary that will trigger a political revolution in Britain and maybe garner him an Oscar, the ex-hippie owner of a local wholefoods restaurant offers him his last meal for the publicity value, and the neighbourhood bimbo just wants her fifteen minutes of glory as his last girlfriend.
Erdman's basic satirical concept of people trying to use a man's death for their personal or political ends is a good one, and El-Bushra's translation into modern British terms allows for witty and wicked sniper attacks, not just at the would-be exploiters but, along the way, at everything from Margaret Thatcher through white rappers to breakfast television.
The big problem with this version of The Suicide is that almost all of the clever, funny and satiric stuff happens in the first act, and after the interval the play can only wander around in search of an ending. (It never really finds one, and so just stops.)
As directed by Nadia Fall this is very much a group piece – not an ensemble in the sense of people working together, but rather a sequence of moments, one actor after another getting a good comic scene before withdrawing into the background for someone else's bit.
No one in the cast carries much of the play's weight – indeed, I saw a couple of understudies and sensed no particular loss – and so no one particularly stands out.
A design team led by Ben Stones makes clever use of the Lyttelton's stage machinery and some imaginative video projections, but they are more razzle-dazzle than integral to the play.
Enjoy the clever premise, enjoy the free-swinging satire, and be prepared for a play that can't sustain the comic energy with which it begins.
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Review - The Suicide - National Theatre 2016