'Feeling Afraid As If Something Terrible Is Going To Happen' review – Samuel Barnett lets rip in this moving comedy
Read our four-star review of Feeling Afraid As If Something Terrible Is Going To Happen, now in performances at the Bush Theatre to 23 December.
The Bush confirms itself once again as one of the most energising theatres in town with this London transfer of a 2022 Edinburgh Festival hit, Feeling Afraid As If Something Terrible Is Going To Happen, which also happens to have one of the most distinctive titles of the year.
The play won a Scotsman Fringe First award at the Festival, though such praise doesn’t always translate south of the border. In fact, Marcelo Dos Santos’s merciless excavation of the haunted mindset of a stand-up comic (the indispensable Samuel Barnett) looks instantly like a monologue made for further travel still. It joins Elephant and Baby Reindeer as models of a genre of writing generating excitement on the level of a far-larger play.
Indeed, one can imagine playwriting students anatomising Dos Santos’s cunning structure as a way of contemplating the use here of the unreliable narrator. Let’s just say that Barnett’s mic-wielding speaker – a 36-year-old gay Northerner based in London and possessed of a ramped-up libido – can’t always be taken at face value.
Ever aware of his performative power, the unnamed character traverses Kat Heath’s bare-bones set with near-reckless brio, pausing now and again to ask whether anyone has “ever cum blood while having sex and [felt as if] you’re going to die”? (At the show attended, no one, thank heavens, replied.)
In between that singular leitmotif, we come to understand that this rampaging ego-made-flesh has “no fear of dying alone” but in the meanwhile is going to fill his days with assignations of varying sorts. Some of these men may even come to mean something significant, and therein lies the psychological rub.
There’s a Jewish doctor who lives in Hampstead within view of the Heath and a muscle-bound American (like the speaker, unnamed) who has a peculiar medical condition which makes it impossible for him to laugh – perhaps not the best match, therefore, for someone who traffics in comedy.
Samuel Beckett famously opined in his play Endgame that “nothing is funnier than unhappiness,” and aided by Barnett’s bravura star turn, Dos Santos’s play would seem to reaffirm that statement. (Beckett, indeed, is cited in passing.) One feels something akin to mania driving our hero on, lest he pause for breath and come to rest on the pain coursing beneath an act that bleeds from his work into his life and back again.
With its talk of “semen gutters” contributing to a generally unbridled discussion of sex, this play is of a piece with Dos Santos’s concurrent West End entry, Backstairs Billy, which features a sex toy as a crucial prop. That play, though, rests its raciness on the comparatively cosy shoulders of the royal family; Feeling Afraid feels infinitely darker and may prove more of a challenge to spectators disinclined to meet it halfway.
That said, I can’t imagine anyone being unmoved by Barnett’s occupancy of a role written with him in mind, the performance shaped to maximum effect by Matthew Xia’s whiplash-smart direction and lighting from Elliot Griggs that seems at times to catch both the actor, and audience, unawares.
Barnett here lets rip to a degree I’ve not encountered from him before, and he lands an ending of brutal power whereby the character’s defences are stripped from him – though not before he comes roaring back with a kicker that takes the breath away. You laugh throughout at a play whose baleful title might suggest otherwise, only to exit with an awareness of the psychic abyss that even the best punchline cannot deflect.
Photo credit: Feeling Afraid As If Something Terrible Is Going To Happen (Photo by The Other Richard)
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