Review: Will This Black Comedy Make You Laugh Yourself To Death?

The Suicide, National Theatre ★★★☆☆

By Sam Smith Last edited 22 months ago
Review: Will This Black Comedy Make You Laugh Yourself To Death? The Suicide, National Theatre 3
Contemplating suicide  certainly ensures Sam a following in Suhayla El-Bushra's black comedy © Johan Persson
Contemplating suicide certainly ensures Sam a following in Suhayla El-Bushra's black comedy © Johan Persson

The Suicide is Suhayla El-Bushra’s updating for modern Britain of Russian writer Nikolai Erdman’s 1928 play. It tells of Sam Desai who, jobless and having just lost his benefits, stands aloft a tall building and contemplates suicide. He comes down again, but only to discover somebody had filmed him and that the footage has now gone viral.

The next thing Sam knows, a host of people are knocking on his door, all of whom are remarkably trying to persuade him to go through with committing suicide! A social worker wants his death to highlight the failures of local government in supporting people like Sam, while a councillor craves it to highlight the problems with mental health services. One girl wants him to die to divert her husband’s attention away from her real lover, another seeks to advertise her own café by having him eat his final meal there, while two activists come documentary makers are seeking fame and fortune by creating a film out of the death and aftermath.

Needless to say, what Sam wants in all of this is rather lost. He has his own desire to see something through, following his wife’s accusation that he has always been a quitter, but even this is something that everyone else can play on to encourage his death.

In the process, we are granted many insights into the way we live today, especially regarding the issues of poverty, celebrity and consumer culture, and the power of social media. However, the best social commentaries are those that reveal something we don’t already know, or let us see an issue in a different light, and The Suicide does neither. As a result is hard to feel we are being told anything new, and hence to feel invigorated to go out and change society in the face of what we have just seen.

It therefore feels as if we are merely witnessing a comedy, because watching everyone in turn convince Sam to commit suicide is funny, but it does little to make us believe in anything that we see before us. It is certainly interesting that, since every National Theatre production is at least two years in the making, the situation has actually got worse since it was conceived (the play does reference the recent disability benefit cuts), and that the problems of today are traced directly back to Margaret Thatcher and her philosophy. However, in serving up such a huge dollop of blatant humour, the ‘absurdism’ that lies at the heart of Erdman’s original play only partially shines through.    

If, however, The Suicide could be accused of playing up the comedy to the detriment of everything else, by the same token if you are looking for an entertaining evening it could well meet your needs. The play’s dynamism is certainly aided by the sets and video designs, the music (there is a live percussionist on stage), and some strong performances, not least from Javone Prince as Sam.

In rep until 25 June at the National Theatre’s Lyttelton Theatre, South Bank, SE1 9PX. For tickets (£15-35) visit the National Theatre website. Londonist saw this play on a complimentary ticket.

Last Updated 22 April 2016