Chris Eldon Lee reviews Northern Broadside’s “The Grand Gesture” which is at the New Vic in Newcastle Under Lyme until Saturday 9th November 2013
When Nikolai Erdman’s play “The Suicide” was first rehearsed in Russia in 1932, Stalin was not best pleased. He had the writer sent to Siberia and the theatre manager shot. Critics had power in those days.
It was indeed a bit of a turgid and irritating play – but adaptor Deborah McAndrew and director Conrad Nelson have given it a happier name and turned it into a box of fireworks that’s fizzing nightly at the New Vic.
The plot is much the same…if moved slightly to the Right, from communist Russia to socialist Liverpool. Simeon Duff is depressed. He’s a hopelessly inadequate little man, out of work and living off his wife’s earnings. His self-respect in tatters, and yearning to be more than just a National Insurance Number, he leaves an advance suicide note. And you’d be amazed how many ne’er-do-wells emerge from the woodwork, trying to buy his sacrifice for their own selfish cause. At last, death offers Duff a purpose in life.
It’s also amazing how hilarious suicide can be – unless it’s you contemplating it.
Led by the wonderful Michael Hugo in jeans and hush puppies, a cavalcade of comic creations strut round the stage, wringing some deeply dark farcical humour out of proceedings.
Hugo is as funny as ever. He instantly sets the tone by casually reminded the audience to switch off their mobile phones before launching into an opening twenty minutes that’s conducted in near blackout. Convinced that music will give him something to live for, he tries to master the Tuba “in ten easy lessons” only to fail miserably at the first step, his bi-polar personality diving from delight to despair in seconds. Unusually for him, Hugo is the object of our laughter rather than the creator of it…and it’s a finely judged and painfully believable comic performance. As a journalist covering the 1980s Liverpool dock strikes, I saw it every day.
The rest of the cast are wonderfully over the top. Star turns for me include Robert Pickavance as a raving, precious, narcissistic ‘Late Night Line Up’ intellectual, prancing smarmily around the stage like a bendy-man on speed. And Angela Bain is brilliantly bedpan as a weasel-faced Irish Mrs Malaprop, who’s more interested in choosing a funeral hat than honouring the dead.
Clever though the adaptation is, it doesn’t fully escape the death grip of the original. The fun and games and catchy tunes disguise the lack of real substance. It’s a patchwork quilt of disconnected thinking that doesn’t amount to a coherent, consuming philosophy. Duff decides to wake up and smell the roses – which may have been a radical thought in revolutionary Russia but feels a touch tame now.
Luckily, the laugher comes in unexpected bursts – like a bonfire night ‘rip rap’ – and includes gags Erdman would never recognise. McAndrew makes the most of her 21st century opportunities. So choosing a spot for a grave these days is all down to “Location, Location, Location” and Duff is promised a blue plaque and a spot of prime time News for his pains. It’s one of those nights where it’s best to go with the flow and join in the party atmosphere everyone else is enjoying. With one exception.
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