The Suicide

Russian playwright Nikolai Erdman's original script for The Suicide was seen as such a strong satirical attack on the Communist Russian Government that it was branded ‘dangerous’ and ‘anti-Soviet’, banned and led to Erdman’s arrest and the murder of its director, Meyerhold. Such is the power of intelligent satire. Now at the Lyttleton, director Nadia Fall says that Suhayla El-Bushra’s version of the piece isn’t just a translation, but “a new play in its own right” – and it’s a play that seemingly throws out any important comment on society to become a puerile, base comedy led by pantomime characters in the style of a facile sitcom. With no intelligence to be found, it misses any swipes at modern culture and instead succeeds in using the act of suicide as little more than a foil for gags.

It’s a train ride of every light stereotype you can think of relentlessly appearing to a ‘boom, tish’ drum beat

The sitcom style is set up from the outset with Sam and Maya in bed interspersing conversation about Gregg’s with a quick synopsis to let us know that after losing his job five years ago (not clear why), Sam has now lost his benefits too because he was late to sign-on. (Don’t worry that this wouldn’t happen – it’s the beginning of an entire script that is laced with inaccuracies, inconsistencies and other plot holes.) Javone Prince (him from The Javone Prince Show) delivers his lines as plosive-heavy weak stand-up material – more to the audience than to his wife – slam-dunking punchlines with the subtlety of a first-timer at an Open Mic Night. As he walks out to “get some peace”, ‘hilarious’ confusion ensues as suicide is incorrectly assumed to be his plan. When a YouTube clip of him contemplating his life on the roof of the Clement Attlee Estate goes viral, a string of half-baked comedy characters walk into his flat (no keys needed on this rough estate, of course) to talk him into taking his own life to help fulfil their own obviously selfish needs.

It’s a train ride of every light stereotype you can think of relentlessly appearing to a ‘boom, tish’ drum beat, a nod and movement to the audience and a light flash (think sitcom guest star turn circa 1975). Each has their bit of stand-up and farce to play out – not above pratfalls, compromising sexual positions and innuendo – before leaving just as hurriedly to tag the next appearance. From ‘frazzled social worker’ (“I'm surprised you're not all hanging from the rafters”) to ‘big-breasted nymphomaniac’ (“I'm in love with You... suf” is her clever wordplay) and ‘street poet turned overnight success’ with his tribute rap #EndingIt (horrendously performed at the end of the first act with out-of-tune backing singers and out-of-time dancing – oh and don’t question how the fame happened in the space of an hour either).

We also have the ‘filmmaker activist’ who wants to document the fatal act and sports a tattoo of Thatcher on his stomach “so every time I wank, she gets it in the eye”. None of the names or backgrounds of the characters really matter. They go on and on and on and all with that level of humour or gimmick. There’s of course a politician too, who’s likely to be corrupt and a German lady who displays her hairy armpits – it really could be the cast of The Benny Hill Show.

It may be pertaining to comment on the pressures of a herding society. Or maybe on the power of social media when it gets out of hand. Or perhaps the lack of political support for those who are unemployed or have mental health issues. But it actually has nothing to say and no depth, originality or care with which to say it. It’s end-of-the-pier humour where actual suicide is only touched upon as being something as simple as swallowing a handful of pills and falling asleep.

It plays for laughs in the way of an amateur copying of Mrs Brown’s Boys (which I accept is a very popular comedy style, so if you find that a bit highbrow, then The Suicide may well be up your street) – even including a filmed skit of This Morning as “A Boob B C Production” where ‘Phillip’ calls ‘Holly’ a “cunt” and then they move in to each other to have sex. The sort of skit that may be made up at a drunken student party that seemed hilarious when stoned.

But it's not just unsophisticated attempts at comedy – they've thrown everything they could think of into this to make it an even weaker and messier variety show. As well as the aforementioned rap, there’s cover version singing, drum solos, dance breaks, video projections, religious pastiches and an unnecessarily huge set that raises and lowers the other floor of the block of flats; unnecessary as most of the action is spent walking in and out (and in and out) of Sam's living room ‘box’. In fact there's so much going on that the only saving grace is that the first hour and a half of Act One does pass by quickly, though the second act is so structurally messy that even this doesn't help.

After sitting through all of this and hearing the guffaws at the shock value of the naughty words by the young and the older middle-class in the audience (the latter demographic surely meant to be the barb for much of the original satirical comment?), it feels offensive that they then try and shoe-in some comment about greed overlooking any sympathetic understanding of suicide. Perhaps I have lost my sense of humour and I don't think that such subject matter needs to be handled delicately – or even seriously – but it needs to be handled, rather than just plonked in and left with no care. This piece does nothing for theatre, makes no point (other than one you try and force on it about social media perhaps) and is just the crassest sort of comedy that feels at least thirty years old and should be consigned to history. If this is your sort of comedy, you'd still be better off seeing a stand-up routine than this mess.

Reviews by Simon Smith

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The Blurb

Things are getting tough for Sam. No job, benefits stopped and stuck in a tiny flat with his wife Maya and her mum. The pressure is building. It feels like there might be only one way out.

But every ending is a beginning and there are plenty of people keen to capitalise on Sam’s momentous decision. From corrupt local politicians to social media-savvy kids, everyone wants a piece of Sam’s demise. It scarcely matters what Sam actually wants. Faced with the promise of immortality, what’s his life worth?

Suhayla El-Bushra takes the satiric masterpiece by Nikolai Erdman and smashes it into contemporary urban Britain, bringing hip-hop, live music and fast-paced humour to the Lyttelton. It’s provocative and very funny.