”Feeling Afraid As If Something Terrible is Going to Happen” at Roundabout – Edinburgh Fringe review

Samuel Barnett
Samuel Barnett
© Mihaela Bodlovic

There’s something vaguely surreal about sitting on the Edinburgh Fringe surrounded by stand-up comedians, watching a play about a stand-up comedian which explains how comedy works. But that unsettling vibe is just part of the deep cleverness of Marcelo Dos Santos’s monologue. You never quite know what is inner revelation and what is well-honed comedy gig.

Samuel Barnett, taking centre stage as if to the comedy manner born, flicking his microphone lead like a pro, has a few (deliberate) false starts before he finally announces: “I’m 36, I’m a comedian, and I’m about to kill my boyfriend.” From there we are off on an engrossing hour-long routine – or maybe a confession – or maybe a bit of both.

Barnett’s character is a neurotic, the kind of person who walks around looking at people happily strolling the streets in the sunshine and notes that “they are successfully ignoring the fact that we are all going to die.” He fills his days with pointless and self-destructive sexual encounters that leave him feeling shame, but also, crucially, provide him with rich material for his stand-up. Then he meets a man he really likes – but one who suffers from cataplexy, a medical condition which means that he might die if he laughs out loud.

The questions posed by Dos Santos’s knife sharp writing are satisfyingly complex. If your professional life is based on a vision of yourself that involves you being a failure, what do you do when success finally appears on the horizon? How do you define love? How do you overcome your own ingrained sense of yourself to allow the possibility of change?

These questions are all couched in the context of a stand-up routine, but nevertheless they extend beyond comedy’s bounds. And Matthew Xia’s beautifully judged production blurs the lines between art and life beautifully; there are moments when Barnett seems to drop out of the performance and into his own soul, but we never quite know. Nor are we meant to.

Barnett, much loved by audiences ever since his appearance in Alan Bennett’s The History Boys, has already won one award for this performance. He’s likely to win more. It would be quite easy for his character – smirking, knowing, papering over unhappiness with a snide aside – to be insufferable. Yet he never lets us forget the fear and terrible emptiness beneath the wisecracks and as the play progresses, he seems to peel away his skin in front of us.

He also delivers a masterclass in comic delivery, letting each line land with precision and purpose. It’s a very funny show, but also a telling one and it confirms Dos Santos (who wrote Lionboy for Complicité) as a really interesting writer, using an examination of the mechanisms of comedy to peer closely into the workings of the human heart.

Read our Edinburgh Fringe guide here