Well, this has gone to shit.

So speaks Pal Aron’s character, Councillor Brian Dawes, late in the action in The Suicide, a production described in the programme as “by Suhayla El-Bushra, after Erdman”. Accurate words.

If you consider West Side Story as “after Shakespeare”, in that it shares similar themes and narrative, then you will probably be surprised at how little in common El-Bushra’s play has with Erdman’s acclaimed masterpiece. Really, it should carry a warning that it has nothing to do with Erdman’s work. Riff on a classic play by all means, but give it is own name. “I am gonna kill myself, Bruv” might have been more appropriate here.

This seems accepted by director Nadia Fall who is quoted in the programme for her production, now playing at the National’s Lyttelton Theatre, thus:

We’re not trying to replicate but attempting to reference contemporary phenomena – the role of the media, social media, the pressure of it, the promise of it. Also the play is called The Suicide. With all our recent political history, when you see that title the brain automatically goes somewhere else. You see a black man leading the story: it’s already sensationalist. That’s exactly what happens to the character in the play. It’s a mix of sound bites and headlines and assumptions we make that feed into the story. As much as it is a homage to the Erdman it’s also a new play in its own right.

Agreed. El-Bushra’s work is a new play in its own right. It is wrong of the National not to promote it as such and to completely distance it from Erdman’s work. One Man, Two Guvnors anyone?

El-Bushra does not seem to decide exactly what kind of play she is writing. Overall it seems to be a farce, but there are clear aspects which are satirical (a Margaret Thatcher Runs Hell skewering is potent) and others which constitute social commentary. The mood and feeling chops and changes from scene to scene and there does not appear to be any holistic overview. Cheap jokes, artificial caricatures, trite plot devices – these are the elements which are combined here, with occasional tasty morsels, to produce a stew of stage activity. Ultimately, though, it is a bland stew.

It starts well enough – although Hairspray has much to answer for in establishing an upright bed as an opening scene device – but descends rather rapidly into incoherence and inconsistency. Too many characters are far too sketchily drawn and situations with comic potential are artificially grafted onto the play’s premise. Occasionally, the mood flips from frantic farce to quiet drama but the writing does not support this properly.

Nor does Nadia Fall’s direction or the curiously overblown set design from Ben Stones. One comes to wonder if it is a requirement these days for every design in the Lyttelton to involve the hydraulic lifts bringing a lower set up onto the main stage. Here, the device is utterly pointless and each time the lift is used, the momentum of the play grinds to a near complete halt.

The structures that represent dilapidated tower blocks are a bulky presence on stage and seem totally unnecessary. They do provide a kind of graffiti sensibility to the proceedings, but that could have been achieved in a simpler way which did not result in a very large cast being squeezed into very small playing areas. Simultaneously, though, the overall stage seems too vast for the play.

Fall utilises odd, alienating devices which make it difficult for the audience to develop empathy with the central characters. A drummer, talented no doubt, is utilised to pound relentlessly throughout the production to no apparent purpose. In the first Act, particularly, the initial appearance of some characters sees them suddenly bathed in white light while they execute some, apparently, hip-hop move. Apart from being intended to give this production a “down with the kids” feel, the dramatic purpose of this directorial decision is ineffable.

The celebratory thing about Fall’s production is the multi-cultural cast. There are about 22 members of the company and a minority of them are Caucasian. There is something quite marvellous about seeing such a company on the Lyttelton stage – it is just a pity that the material given to them to work with, and the directorial vision in which they find themselves, was not more inherently and intrinsically interesting and challenging.

More than anything else, Fall’s production of this version of The Suicide comes across like a worthy high school experiment. The participants approach their task with boundless enthusiasm and a deal of raw ability and some polished skill, and as an audience member you really want them to do well. But, in the end, the idea of this company doing great work on a National stage is bigger and better than the capacity of Fall and El-Bushra’s script to deliver on that idea.

Sam is jobless and feeling useless. He contemplates suicide and relations with his partner, Maya, reach rock bottom. Word gets out that he is thinking about suicide (social media spreads the word like wildfire) and a motley collection of pariahs clamour to get the hapless Sam to dedicate his suicide to their particular cause or issue. None of them care about Sam, none of them try to stop him; they all want to exploit him. At his funeral, chickens come home to roost.

Despite the meaty themes, the production has too much of a conversational tone to be properly theatrical. It seems more like a sit-com on Channel 4 than a thrilling piece of theatrical comedy writing. It’s piecemeal too, and the strands are not sufficiently intertwined to resonate with any authority or continuous pleasure. In short, most of the jokes wear thin quickly and Councillor Dawes’ wry assessment becomes true more often than not. One or two jokes about social media were funny; endless repetition of the same notion did not lead to an accumulation of laughter or good-will. Labouring points does not good comedy make.

There are some splendid performances.

Ashley McGuire is brutally funny as Sarah, Maya’s mother. It’s a brave, compelling performance, arch, rough and utterly believable. Sarah is a predator when it comes to male flesh, but she is humane and warm and can make a good cup of tea. McGuire makes what could have been a caricature battle-axe into a real, utterly believable character. Add her fearsome turn as a macabre Margaret Thatcher and McGuire gives a truly stand-out performance.

So too does Paul Kaye as a venal, vituperative, viper/vampire with a film camera, desperate for a BAFTA and willing to do anything for it. With dreadlocks and a feral aura, Kaye’s scintillating performance makes you almost itch just by watching him. He personifies dirty. There is a moment of rampant sexual ardour involving him and (spoiler!) that is truly funny, and his put-downs of others, though his aggressive physicality or sneering tone, are blistering.

Standing in for an indisposed Javone Prince, Adrian Richards was excellent as Sam, the central character. Although clearly without the benefit of detailed and prolonged rehearsal, Richards brought a natural charisma, comic flair and easy rapport to the role. His relationships with Rebecca Scroggs’ Maya and McGuire’s Sarah were genuine and touching. The material does not permit the kind of bravura central performance that is associated with productions of the original version of The Suicide, but Richards keeps his energy high and rises to all challenges permitted by the direction and the material. It is difficult to see how Prince could be so sufficiently different in the role to affect the overall enjoyment of the piece.

Scroggs is not given much to work with, but she does a fine job with the little she is given. Ayesha Antoine stands out as the comic nymphomaniac, Cleo, making the most of the opportunities offered her by the script. Tom Robertson does good work as street artist, Igor, and he does excellent work with a fur coat in the second Act. There is a breathlessly funny send-up of bland breakfast television, featuring Gunnar Cauthery and Antonia Kinlay, which it is impossible not to find hilarious. (Occasionally, El-Bushra’s use of the C-word seems trite or misplaced, but this is one of the exceptions)

The work of the rest of the company varies from promising (Michael Karim, Nathan Clarke and Chloe Hesar) to awkward (Pal Aron, Roxanne Palmer) but, for the most part, that is about staging and material. Not everyone in the cast is given equal opportunity to shine because the material and directorial vision is so haphazard.

Of course, the peerless Paule Constable provides a lighting design which magically transforms the set and enhances it beyond any measure it deserves. Her lighting for the Margaret Thatcher scene is delicious and there is a real sense of Russian roots in the colours which wash over proceedings. She can make the space intimate or vast, depending on what she thinks it needs. This aspect of the design never disappoints.

In the end, El-Bushra’s play and Fall’s directorial oversight of it is simply not good enough for the Lyttelton stage or for the splendid company of actors assembled. Fall’s last production for the National, Our Country’s Good, was similarly flawed.  This mis-step, however, is sadder.

Opportunities for real multi-cultural companies, large and diverse, are few and far between and to ensure they become more frequent, the end result needs to be much better than this.

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The Suicide
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Stephen Collins
With years of experience on both sides of the curtain, Stephen Collins has worked as an actor, singer, director, producer and casting consultant, indulging his passion for live theatre. Occasionally a media lawyer, who has worked in-house for the likes of Channel 4 and The Sunday Times, he can usually be found in an audience. In 2014 and 2015, he was lead critic for Britishtheatre.com. He thinks the West End and London is the centre of the theatrical universe (sorry Broadway!), but fears it's not possible to see absolutely everything that’s on there. He doesn’t stop trying though. Cocktails help when it all gets too much.