Various broadsheet commentators have lately had a mewl about the gloomy, challenging nature of the work in Rufus Norris’s first year in charge at the NT. Well, I hope they’re bloody happy now. Daft comedy ‘The Suicide’ isn’t a disaster but it is a bit of a mess, Nikolai Erdman’s classic Russian satire relocated to modern, multicultural London and left to stagger all over the shop.
Sam (Javone Prince) is a schlubby loser whose benefits have just been sanctioned. He lives in a tiny flat with his long-suffering wife Maya (Rebecca Scroggs) and her oversexed mum, Sarah (Ashley McGuire). It is the middle of the night, he’s grumpy and – long story short – threatens to kill himself. Unfortunately his self-pitying rant becomes a YouTube sensation, and he’s pounced upon by various chancers who see a golden opportunity. This rogue’s gallery includes an oversexed neighbour (Ayesha Antoine), who wants Sam to pretend he’s her lover, Paul Kaye’s trustafarian documentary maker, intent on making Sam’s death the first spark in a revolution, and Pal Aron’s ambitious local politician (who bears an amusing resemblance to a certain Labour mayoral candidate).
There is a lot of good stuff in Suhayla El-Bushra’s adaptation: at its best it feels like it comes close to skewering the phenomenon of hashtag empathy and our society’s chronic fetishisation of the individual. There are some legit laughs and memorable characters, notably Kaye’s Patrick, Lizzie Winkler as Patrick’s pathologically earnest German assistant Ava, and Tom Robertson as a godawful slam poet. And Prince – heroically battling a sore throat on press night – gives good everyman as Sam.
But still. The tone of El-Bushra’s adaptation is all over the shop, veering wonkily from domestic comedy to social satire to cartoonish tit-around, too hyperactive to really nail any of them. She’s clearly a talent, but her work has predominantly been in TV and sustaining a two-and-a-half-hour play feels like a step too far. If there is any truth to accusations of dourness in the Norris era, it lies in the fact that his predecessor Nicholas Hytner directed most of the NT’s big comedies – you suspect he would have imposed some order on this in a way the competent Nadia Fall hasn’t quite managed.
‘The Suicide’ is enjoyable enough, but it’s hard not to think it could have been something more.