Today, it’s often seen as a seal of quality for a work of art to have been banned by the Soviet Union under the reign of Stalin. Doctor Zhivago (Pasternak), The Master and Margarita (Bulgakov), and Life and Fate (Grossman) all faced censorship, and yet are considered masterpieces of Russian literature.
Similarly, Nikolai Erdman’s dark comedy The Suicide – originally written in 1928 but not performed until 1979, years after Erdman’s death – has been dubbed one of the finest plays to come out of communist Russia. It tells the story of the poor Semyon, who is considering killing himself following a failed attempt at learning to play the tuba. Semyon’s neighbour Alexander plots to capitalise on this, inviting a number of unsavoury characters who plague Semyon and attempt to exploit his situation for financial gain.
Storyhouse’s adaptation of The Suicide – written by Rebekah Harrison and directed by Michael Bryher – follows a largely similar plot. The crucial difference is its change in setting: not Soviet Russia, but modern-day Chester. Opening on a dingy B&B bedroom – the stage strewn with old laundry and haphazardly-placed cardboard boxes – Simon Little awakens his wife in the small hours of the morning. He is confused and frustrated, for he cannot remember what became of the last remaining Gregg’s sausage roll. What follows is a frantic argument that serves to set up Simon’s character as the hapless, pathetic but likeable fool caught between his loving wife and spiteful mother-in-law.
The Suicide is – before anything else – a comedy. So, is it funny? It has its moments, such as the recurring sausage roll motif: a narrative anchor for Simon and Marie’s relationship. But on the whole, its brand of slapstick humour and stereotyping tends to fall flat. The character of Alexander – now Simon’s widower landlord – appears to be in a veiled homosexual relationship with the younger Freddy. This is given the full ‘Carry On’ treatment; Freddy is simply there to “fill a hole” left by the death of Alexander’s wife. Ooh err, Mrs.
The aforementioned unsavoury types are replaced by obvious contemporary caricatures: the Farage-esque politician calling for radical change, the influencer trying to boost her social profile, and the Extinction Rebellion activist on a mission to save the planet. These exaggerated characters are undeniably the usual suspects and their appearance is unsurprising if not warranted. But they feel superficial and not fleshed out enough to be genuinely funny. Yes, there are those that will laugh at the ‘woke’ millennial’s sanctimonious outrage at assumed gender pronouns, or at the promiscuous dumb blonde twerking for her Instagram followers. But it just feels too obvious.
Nevertheless, there are moments in The Suicide worth praising. Tom Davey does a fine job of playing the character of Simon as a perpetually confused, uncomfortable man in despair. This is well-balanced out by Natasha Bain’s exasperated but kind-hearted Marie and Claire Benedict’s nagging, penny-pinching Sarah. There are also some great moments in terms of the play’s production value: In a musical montage laying out Simon’s short-lived tuba-playing aspirations, and an interval scene set in the Storyhouse’s kitchen. The latter depicts the filming of a mock reality TV show and features nauseatingly garish set-design, pre-recorded vox pops that are so terrible they’re brilliant, and performances which make a literal song-and-dance out of Simon’s scheduled demise.
As good as these scenes were, whether they redeemed the staler aspects of the production is another question. The Suicide and its brand of humour will no doubt appeal to many but, for me, it died before the second act.
The show runs until 28th Feb, grab tickets here.