The Suicide (National Theatre)
Suhayla El-Bushra updates Nikolai Erdman's 1928 play and transfers it to contemporary urban Britain
In London, a black man in his thirties is about to fall to his death. He's having a party and everyone's got a mask on: his face is everywhere. Somebody hoovers up a line as long as the table. He falls to the floor.
That was Everyman. This is The Suicide, a contemporary revision of Nikolai Erdman's madcap anti-communist satire, and it's a mark of its self-aware smarts that writer Suhayla El-Bushra and director Nadia Fall should spoof Rufus Norris's opening show in his own theatre.
Rather than Chiwetel Ejiofor's suited, booted banker, this time it's Sam Desai (Javone Prince) facing his exit: an unemployed 'skiver' who's had his benefits cut. Where Erdman's depressed protagonist, Semyon Podsekalikov, takes up the tuba only to find he needs a piano to master it, Sam's paradox is that he can't afford to work. It sends him up to the roof of Clement Attlee house, ready to end it all.
However, filmed by a local teenager, he becomes a YouTube sensation and, suddenly, everyone wants a piece of him and his death. He become an icon of austerity Britain: a USP for yuppie community café owners, the inspiration for street poets' hit singles. Social workers score points against council cuts; councillors (Pal Aron is the spit of Sadiq Khan), against social workers.
Best of all are two anti-capitalist film-makers out to make a documentary that turns him into a revolutionary spark - and wins them a BAFTA. Paul Kaye's dreadlocked trustafarian, Margaret Thatcher tattooed on his abs so he can wank onto her face, bangs on about Mohammed Bousazizi and the Arab Spring.
All of which, of course, gives Sam every reason to live, and, as new media and new money pours into this deprived council estate, you think of Owen Jones, Kate Tempest and Benefit Street's White Dee - those labelled hypocrites for careers built on authenticity. The world puts Sam on a platform, then pulls him back down and, at its best, The Suicide skewers both the showy self-interest of virtue-signalled empathy - not least by the National itself - and our scorn for the self-made.
Essentially, El-Bushra has taken a satire about Stalinism and turned it against Thatcherism. It works because neither permits an alternative. Erdman was sent to Siberia; his play, banned. El-Bushra won't face exile, but, like her activist filmmaker, she stands to profit from her protest, thus conforming to the very thing she's against. Her play goes on, but, in a say-anything society, it's already toothless. We are all Thatcherites now. In fact, here, Maggie's taken over heaven and privatised the shit out of it. "Everything was free," shudders a blue-suited Ashley McGuire in disgust.
If The Suicide is stupidly smart, it's also smartly stupid. Ultimately, that's how it escapes its own double-bind - by aiming to please everyone. It's a broad, bawdy comedy that lets a typical theatre crowd laugh at itself; the lowest common denominator spun into high art.
That said, so many post-ironic tumble-turns leave it rough as hell, and El-Bushra and Fall come perilously close to losing their audience. The seventies sitcom style only falls into place once the penny drops and, even then, despite a lot of great gags (and a fair few misfires), it never finds the fever of farce.
Their cast haven't quite nailed the style, and even if Prince is currently hindered by acute laryngitis, only Kaye's hypocritical activist and McGuire's lackadaisical slummy-mummy enter into the spirit wholeheartedly.
On its first UK outing, one critic described Erdman's play as "To be or not to be acted out as farce." Here, it's a case of 'To have one's cake or to eat it' and it very nearly manages both.
The Suicide runs at the National Theatre until 25 June.