This update of a Stalin-era Russian satire veers between chaotic hilarity and ill-judged mean-spiritedness, reaches occasional soaring highs only to plumb depths the likes of which are rarely seen at the National Theatre. Over the two and a half hour run time, the enjoyable moments are far outweighed by the relentless procession of disjointed ideas and borderline-offensive humour.
Sam Desai is an out of work everyman who has just had his benefits cut. He briefly flirts with jumping off his tower-block but, like everything else in his life, has no intention of following through with it. A local teenager catches the moment on his iPhone and the footage goes viral – suddenly, Desai is hot property, with a string of seedy locals hoping to use his impending suicide to advance their various causes.
There’s a social worker who thinks a high-profile death could boost funding; a scheming politician who hopes he can pin the blame on social services; a woman who wants to hide an affair; a local cafe owner who plans to use it to publicise her business; a film-maker who dreams of winning a Pulitzer; a slam poet who needs inspiration.
These characters are all loathsome, cynical archetypes, so grotesquely exaggerated, so lacking in humanity that they soon become tiring; a warm central performance by Javone Prince (battling against laryngitis) as Desai isn’t nearly enough to redress the balance.
Director Nadia Fall isn’t short of ideas, quite the opposite – her production is in need of a good editor to trim at least a third of its ideas away. It’s full of projections and animation and live drumming and video-cutaways (a comic highlight is a This Morning pastiche called Morning Glory) and rapping and contemporary dance. The excellent set is a sitcom-style cutaway into the Desai house, which slides away to make room for the exterior of a tower-block complete with hidden alcoves and passageways.
All of this makes for some engaging set-pieces – one beautifully choreographed moment sees a scrum of characters freeze-frame into a deliciously 21st century take on The Last Supper – but collectively it hints at a scattershot approach where any and everything is thrown at the stage to see what sticks; it doesn’t convey much confidence in the play itself.
Nikolai Erdman’s 1928 work of the same name was about the Stalinist political machine. It was a cutting, vital text that earned him a place in a gulag; Suhayla El-Bushra tries to translate that to “austerity Britain” but her play is too caught up in the odiousness of the individuals to make much of a political point.
One “joke”, for instance, pokes fun at a German woman for having hairy armpits, eliciting a moronic “eeeeeew” from a girl sitting behind me; laughing at women’s body-hair is such a dreary throwback that I’m astonished it made the final cut.
The National Theatre has been vocal about giving a platform to a more diverse community of actors, especially on its bigger stages. Clearly this is a good idea; now they just need to give them better plays to act in.
First published in City A.M.