In many ways The Grand Gesture, Northern Broadsides' latest production in partnership with Harrogate Theatres, has what it takes to be a truly memorable production. Deborah McAndrew's free adaptation of Nikolai Erdman's The Suicide is bold, ingenious and inventive; the same epithets can be applied to Conrad Nelson's production; the music is excellent and imaginatively integrated (musical director Rebekah Hughes); there is a superb central performance from Michael Hugo, backed by a committed ensemble of actors/singers/musicians; Dawn Allsopp's dilapidated lop-sided set serves the expressionist purpose of the production as well as it passes for apartment and pub; and, above all, we are seeing a neglected play that roused Stalin's wrath. However, somehow the magic is patchy and we end up with a highly skilled and entertaining production rather than an outstanding one. I suspect that Erdman's play, though well worth reviving, is not a forgotten masterpiece and in consequence McAndrew and Nelson sometimes try too hard to make it work.
The opening couldn't be better. Simeon Duff slides into bed with a warning to the audience not to disturb him with mobile phones, then a band (including drum kit) stealthily assembles and launches into a big ensemble number before Simeon and his wife go into a who's waking whom routine – very Brechtian, but great fun!
The plot centres on Simeon's distressed state and the possibility of suicide. At the merest hint that he might consider it, all kinds of folk try to appropriate his "grand gesture" for their personal, political, romantic or religious ends – and that becomes rather strained. The preening intellectual Victor Stark is the best developed of these characters and Robert Pickavance imbues every self-serving speech and quotation with a full measure of ego. Paul Barnhill, too, is excellent, romping disapprovingly on the fringe of the action as a Marxist postman. Howard Chadwick's corrupt and lecherous landlord begins with a nice touch of ambiguity, but settles into a more obvious characterisation. All the others animate their caricatures effectively enough, but apart from anything else what they hope to gain from the suicide isn't always convincing.
The "real people", however, give much joy. Michael Hugo is a natural comedian, but also finds the pathos in the role of Simeon Duff and delivers his "message" speeches with great conviction. Samantha Robinson projects the normality of his wife with a sharp tongue and much love and as her mother Angela Bain moves from imprecation to prayer, from egg nog to cheese pie, in the true spirit of Mrs. Doyle.
The Grand Gesture runs at Harrogate Theatre until 22 September. Further Yorkshire dates are:
22-26 Oct. Lawrence Batley Theatre, Huddersfield
19-23 Nov. Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough
26-30 Nov. Viaduct Theatre, Halifax