Javone Prince, the leading man of the National's new, comprehensively revised production of the classic 1920s Russian comedy The Suicide was still recovering from a severe dose of laryngitis that had caused him to miss several performances ahead of the press performance, but his voice wasn't the only thing that felt severely strained about the evening.
While a similarly contemporary make-over of Everyman, the 15th-century morality play that opened Rufus Norris's regime at helm of the National, looked at a man attempting to make a reckoning with his own life on earth after his death, The Suicide has a man contemplating seeking an exit from his seemingly failed life. Instead of being dissuaded, he finds himself actively being persuaded to carry out his aims from everyone from a visiting mental health worker and local politician to the owner of a local organic cafe and a woman trying to conceal an affair, who want to co-opt his death to their own ends.
But it constantly feels overcooked, contrived and strenuous, especially as Nadia Fall's production — which credits two choreographers and a movement director — falls over itself, in every sense, to be funny. And there's nothing less funny that something trying too hard to be.
There's also a sense that the National Theatre are trying to repeat the winning formula of One Man, Two Guvnors, which took an old Goldoni play and relocated it to 50s Britain, by taking this Nikolai Erdman comedy and putting it in the here and now of modern Britain. There's also a preoccupation with the world of online intrusion as Sam Desai's private decision to end his life suddenly becomes a viral phenomenon after his initial suicide attempt is filmed and posted online. Then a documentary film maker turns up wanting to chronicle it, too. But the boy with the instantaneously posted mobile phone footage still has the upper edge in the news stakes.
There are as many competing themes to the play that Suhayla El-Bushra has adapted from Erdman as there are competing claims on the suicidal man's attentions. But the supposed comedy of this situation is more sad than funny, even if it is intended to be a satirical indictment of the desperate lengths people will go to in order to give life — and death — meaning.
The National throws its considerable resources at it, including a 3D representation of our (anti?) hero's council estate flat and its surrounding corridors and stairways, and a cast that as well as Pavone Prince's imperilled Sam also includes Rebecca Scroggs as his frustrated wife and Ashley McGuire as his sexually voracious mother-in-law work hard to make it feel truthful. But they're constantly working against the grain of a script that also wants to have it both ways, and make it purely comic and extreme.
"El-Bushra’s play seems not only superfluous but curiously dated."
Michael Billington for The Guardian
"Full of inventive ideas but never finds its rhythm,."
Henry Hitchings for The Evening Standard
External links to full reviews from popular press