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 The Theatreguide.London Review


Dying for It
Almeida Theatre Spring 2007

Nikolai Erdman's 'The Suicide' was repeatedly banned in the Soviet Union, not primarily for its incidental political comment, but for trivialising serious subjects - if there was one thing the Communists couldn't handle, it was whimsy.

When a no-hope loser decides to kill himself, he quickly finds himself a local hero, with everyone wanting to use his impending death for their own purposes.

Leave a suicide note saying you're doing it to protest the government's neglect of the intelligentsia, says a writer. No, says a Party stalwart, do it for the Party. Say you did it for love, says a sentimental suicide groupie.

Even the local priest gets into the act. After a perfunctory attempt to argue against suicide, he asks him to say it was despair, so the priest can use him as an object lesson in his sermons.

The snowballing support builds to a big party and then a grand funeral, with the one predictable comic complication that the guy isn't actually dead yet.

Anyway, it's part madcap farce, part unforced social satire, and only a couple of things keep this Almeida production from being a total success.

One, which is nobody's fault, is that our expectations of farce have changed a bit in the 76 years since the play was written, and Erdman's structure is a little too languid and leisurely.

There are some delightfully frantic sequences, as in the snowballing collection of would-be sponsors and in a later scene when the suicide's wife tries to convince the funeral planners that he's still alive. But in between, things occasionally drag, dissipating the comic energy.

The other is that we are not actually seeing The Suicide, but a new adaptation by Moira Buffini.

In a programme note, Buffini says that what drew her to the play was neither the farce nor the satire, but the serious issue of the psychological and social implications of suicide (which suggests that she may have been reading a different play from the rest of us).

Without a close comparison of the two texts, I can't be certain, but Buffini seems deliberately to have played down the comedy to make room for her own concerns.

For example, I would guess that the moment at which the action stops dead (no pun intended) for the hero to make an endless speech about finding meaning and identity through suicide is hers.

Director Anna Mackmin seems torn between the demands of her two authors, occasionally getting the comic tone just right, but too often almost fighting the play's natural rhythm to keep it from overpowering the serious side.

Too many scenes clearly meant to be high-energy - the party, the surprise of discovering he isn't dead, a chase - are too awkwardly handled for the comedy to work as well as it should.

Tom Brooke is droll as the hero, though he tends to writhe himself into odd positions. Liz White as his alternately supportive and befuddled wife, Barnaby Kay and Sophie Stanton as the most level-headed of the neighbours, and Ronan Vibert as the self-styled intellectual lead a solid supporting cast.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review - Dying for It - Almeida 2007