“Please note there are no puppets in this production.” It was this reassuring footnote on the Almeida Theatre’s website that drew Andrew to the first preview of Moira Buffini’s Dying For It last night.
The play revolves around the poverty-stricken, jobless and hapless Semyon Semyonovich Podsekalnikov (Tom Brooke) who lives with his wife and mother in law in a dilapidated and over-crowded apartment building. When his latest attempt to improve his lot by learning to play the tuba fails, he determines to end his own life.
When news of this gets out Semyon is propelled to celebrity status and a series of strangers – representing the intelligentia, the church, the state the arts and so on – visit to try to persuade him to commit his suicide in the name of their respective causes.
The history of the play is fascinating and reads like a Who’s Who of Soviet theatre. Vsevolod Meyerhold’s fight to get it performed involved Konstantin Stanislavsky (supported by Maxim Gorky) writing to Stalin himself who responded with indifference:
I do not have a very high opinion of the play… My close comrades see it as empty and even harmful…. However I do not object to giving the theatre the chance to try it out.
But in any event, both performance and publication of the play were banned and Erdman was arrested and sent to Siberia. The Suicide wasn’t staged in Moscow until 1982 where it managed just six performances before being banned again.
But anyway, the play is the thing and it’s really rather good. But in this case, the set is also very much the thing. It must be the most expensive and ambitious set ever to be squeezed into the Almeida and done so with only inches to spare.
The crumbling apartment block boasts three staircases and four floors (conceptually, but utterly convincingly; only two of them are actually visible). Hats off to designer Lez Brotherston and to Scott Fleary Ltd who created the staircase, balcony and walls. Even the floor (by Weird Scenery) is amazing, playing a dramatic role of its own in the second act.
Luckily, Andrew had had the foresight to invite his property developer cum writer friend Helen (who – only connect! – turns out to have worked with that nice Mr Eldgridge who yesterday dubbed the Whingers “the critical Hinge and Brackett of the theatrical blogosphere“) so she was able to draw Andrew’s attention to the finer points of the faded architecural grandeur by employing words such as “lath and plaster” and “balustrade”.
Director Anna Mackmin makes maximum use of the generous canvass she’s been given, arranging the action not just in all three dimensions, but off-stage too. It’s something of a tour de force.
As for the performances, it’s difficult to be sure, this being the first preview, but once the narrative kicks in Tom Brooke as Semyon propels the show very effectively. There are some excellent supporting performances too, notably Tony Rohr as Father Uelpidy and Ronan Vibert as the intellectual Aristarkh Dominikovich Grand-Skubik.
The only problem with the production is the first 15 minutes or so which fail to engage or entertain, so much so that Andrew was convinced he was in for a real turkey and was cringing with the embarrassment one feels when one invites someone to come and see something that turns out to be utterly dreadful. But once the plot kicks in and the supporting characters arrive, the whole thing lifts into a dynamic and amusing evening. If they can sort this out before the opening, the Almeida may have something approaching a hit on its hands. And even if they don’t, there’s still the set.