Moira Buffini’s new adaptation of Nikolai Erdman’s satirical comedy The Suicide, renamed Dying for It, opened at the Almeida Theatre on Thursday (15 March 2007, previews from 8 March), helmed by Anna Mackmin, who took over directorial duties from Kathy Burke after the latter fell ill (See News, 31 Jan 2007).
Written in 1928, five years after Stalin took control of the Communist Party, The Suicide was banned in 1932, before it had had a single public performance. It was not seen in the Soviet Union until 1982.
The comedy centres on Semyon, unemployed, living in the hallway and watching his wife Masha slave all the hours God sends. When his last hope to earn a crust and gain some self-respect disappears, he decides to take his own life. Word gets out of his intention and he finds himself inundated with visitors begging him to die on their behalf. Dying for It continues its limited season until 28 April 2007.
Overnight critics enjoyed the production and said the performances were top-notch, particularly that of Tom Brooke as Semyon, and the production won four stars all round. However, critics did note that some of Buffini’s modern phrasing jarred slightly, and while the characters were hilarious as stereotypes, some were slightly shallow.
Michael Coveney on Whatsonstage.com (4 stars) – “Rather needlessly re-titled at the Almeida in Moira Buffini’s ebullient new version as Dying for It…. Anna Mackmin’s revival is still likely to hit an audience like a tidal wave, such is the vitality of the playing and the brilliance of Tom Brooke – moth-eaten, angular, glassy-eyed and slightly deranged, a sort of anorexic, slow-witted Tommy Cooper – as Semyon…. Its comically defiant spirit is superbly maintained in Mackmin’s production, which is set in Lez Brotherston’s grey communal slum of rooms on two levels linked by a Soviet-style spiral staircase and wrought-iron balcony. Semyon’s devoted wife and truculent mother-in-law are colourfully played by Liz White and Susan Brown. There is notable support, too, from Sophie Stanton as the full-throated, slop-swilling coffee-shop owner (and Semyon’s lover) and Barnaby Kay as another slum-dweller, his friend, who make riotous off-stage love while Semyon considers his imminent demise. Nothing like neighbours to make you not feel at home!”
Michael Billington in the Guardian (4 stars) - “(Erdman’s play) deserves to be far better known since it is the best Russian theatrical satire since The Government Inspector…. The joy of the play lies in the way Erdman uses laughter to puncture the notion of a Soviet utopia. From the moment when Semyon discovers that an instruction manual on the art of the tuba requires him to buy a grand piano, the play offers a catalogue of failed dreams; and, for good measure, Erdman suggests that a by-product of disappointment is escalating corruption. I was sorry that Buffini turns Semyon's direct phone call to the Kremlin into a piece of wish-fulfilment. But otherwise this is a sprightly version, niftily directed by Anna Mackmin and atmospherically set by Lez Brotherston around a spiralling stairwell that is a grubby testament to decay. Tom Brooke, with his eccentric lunar profile, also admirably conveys Semyon's simultaneous desire for death and appetite for life. And there is rich-textured support from Ronan Vibert as a dandified intellectual, Tony Rohr as a vodka-priest whose praying days are over and Sophie Stanton as a cafe-owning prostitute who once celebrated the rise of the masses.”
Nicholas de Jongh in the Evening Standard (4 stars) – “In Anna Mackmin's exuberant, high-velocity production, with Lez Brotherston's effective evocation of a dingy lodging house, the play emerges as a great, neglected drama. There are, though, stylistic irritations…. (Buffini) disdains historical perspective, makes Erdman's working-class characters under Stalin synonymous with ours under Blair. ‘Shut it’ ‘Whinge’ ‘Toe Rag’ ‘Does he give a toss?’ and ‘Boy Genius’ gives an idea of her tone. If the cast had spoken with Russian accents, the right Soviet flavour might have been achieved. Instead Sophie Stanton's coffee shop owner sounds straight out of EastEnders, Tony Rohr's drunken priest, Father Yelpidy, could be Father Ted and Susan Brown's flinty mother-in-law comes from far north of Watford. By contrast, Tom Brooke's suicidal hero Semyon, a wiry figure of feverish energy, his face streaked with long-term desolation, scores a complete comic triumph. He passes from morose self-pity to pathos and drunken self-glorification at death's door, before his poignant delight in having survived. ”
Rhoda Koenig in the Independent (4 stars) - “Anna Mackmin's production… presents a glorious gallery of comic types. Ronan Vibert is the dapper representative of the country's ‘finest men, the intelligentsia’ who envies Semyon his suicide… Charlie Condou is the intense, black-clad writer… who wants to be in charge of the literary aspects of Semyon's demise.... Best of all is Sophie Stanton's unsettlingly outspoken prostitute, whose easy dominance of a gathering shows why she has risen to manage the most successful business in the neighbourhood…. Tom Brooke's Semyon, though a touch too robust, radiates the frantic bewilderment of a simple man driven to extremities by a supposedly collectivist society in which everyone is murderously keen to promote his individualism. As Semyon's loving but exasperated wife, Liz White beautifully fills the often thankless role of the one nice, normal person.
Yet, much of the laughter inspired by the broad comedy has a hollow ring, especially since the plot, once its premise is established, has no surprises to divert us. For all their earthy humour, the characters are, mainly, weightless…. Lez Brotherston's set, however, hits the perfect note of majestic squalor.”
- by Caroline Ansdell