THE GRAND GESTURE
New Vic Theatre, Newcastle under Lyme, Tuesday 29th October, 2013
Northern Broadside bring their loose adaptation of Nikolai Erdman’s The Suicide to the New Vic – the action has been translated to a vague representation of the North West of England – but do not let my use of words like ‘loose’ and ‘vague’ put you off. Everything about this production is spot on.
The plot concerns Simeon Duff, depressed from long-term unemployment, his male pride dented because his wife is the breadwinner. Whatever he tries (a scene in which he attempts to teach himself to play the tuba is particularly funny) comes to naught, flinging him from the mania of hope to the despair of failure. He decides to kill himself and it is at this point that he becomes worth something to people – people who try to appropriate his suicide as a ‘grand gesture’ to further their own causes. He is touted as a martyr for the revolution, or a martyr for the church – among other things. His unscrupulous landlord is cashing in, offering sponsorship deals of the big event.
Angela Bain almost steals the show as Duff’s mother-in-law, with her constant appeals to the saints for assistance, her malapropisms and her physical comedy. All the performances are heightened in a larger-than-life world. Robert Pickavance as intellectual Victor Stark is particularly mannered (and hilarious) and other notable mentions go to Alan McMahon as the priest with a propensity for drink and off-colour poetry, and to Howard Chadwick as wheeler-dealer landlord Al Bush. Samantha Robinson brings emotional intensity as Duff’s wife but above all the play offers leading man Michael Hugo a chance to showcase his considerable talents. Duff is a tricky role in that we laugh at him but we are not laughing at his plight, but rather the absurdity of his situation. Hugo pitches it perfectly, the rubber-faced reactions, the physicality of the character in all his moods – the performance is heightened but the man’s anguish seems genuine, within the context of the play. By the end, he has become an Everyman, and his speech on the nature of Life is particularly hard-hitting and affirming.
Conrad Nelson directs with an eye for detail and timing to make the comedy as sharp as it is broad. Deborah McAndrew’s wonderful script (so good I bought the book) is laden with double entendres and gags, but there are also plenty of literary references (to Blake and Burns, for example) that give the farcical elements some depth. I also detected a hint of Alan Bleasdale here and there. Another strong point is the social commentary. The play touches on the mental health of the long-term unemployed and how they are not seen as people but as statistics, mascots for whatever cause you might embrace.
With its wit, energised performances and the added bonus of some lovely singing, The Grand Gesture all makes for a grand night’s entertainment.