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The Suicide review at the Lyttelton, National Theatre – ‘fatally misfires’

Javone Prince in The Suicide at the Lyttelton, National Theatre. Photo: Johan Persson Javone Prince in The Suicide at the Lyttelton, National Theatre. Photo: Johan Persson
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One Man, Two Guvnors this is sadly not.

But, just as that show saw Richard Bean co-opt Goldoni’s Italian comedy classic The Servant of Two Masters and transfer it to a new 1950s British setting, so Suhayla El-Bushra has sought to propel Nikolai Erdman’s 1928 Russian satirical masterpiece The Suicide into a modern British milieu, but with much diminished results.

Intriguingly, this isn’t the first time a major London subsidised house has sought to make-over this play: in 2007, Moira Buffini also gave it what was billed as a ‘free adaptation’ at the Almeida. But this one goes even further, abandoning Russia altogether for a ruthless portrait of an opportunistic and widely failing modern Britain.

Sam Desai has been out of work for five years and has had his benefits withdrawn when he fails to sign on in time. No sooner does he threaten to kill himself, than assorted opportunists and chancers variously co-opt him to their causes. They want to claim his imminent death to their own ends, whether it’s an affair one woman is trying to conceal, an organic cafe another is trying to promote, or the underfunding of a mental health initiative.

The show is at once over-plotted and underdeveloped. It fatally misfires as both a satire and as a portrait of the desperate lengths that a marginalised man will go to try to be heard.

As in Wonder.land, still playing in the Olivier, there’s an attempt to frame the play in the here and now of online and social media engagement, as news of his plans become a viral sensation. Nadia Fall’s production is full of tricksy video embellishments, but even more profligate is Ben Stones’s elaborate set that gives us several layers of Clement Attlee House, the housing estate Sam lives on, at once.

The play struggles to fill the large space created for it, and Javone Prince, in the central role of Sam, was also struggling badly on press night as he was recovering from laryngitis that had taken him out of the production earlier in the week. He put up a brave fight, but I’m not sure that the desperate edge to his performance was more in maintaining his wavering voice than his character’s own wavering resolve to go through with his stated intentions.

The National’s intentions, meanwhile, are described in a programme interview with Fall as seeking to get more diverse artists onto the NT’s larger stages, and inviting a writer to the next level of writing for a bigger space and company through an adaptation. But though the script may be sparky on the page, it is flattened on the stage in a production whose rhythms feel consistently off, and not just because of its leading man’s vocal tentativeness. It’s a struggle all around, shared by the audience.

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Misfiring comedy fails to land despite good intentions — or maybe because of them