Unemployed and now struck off benefits, Sam (Javone Prince) is stuck in a tiny flat with his wife Maya (Rebecca Scroggs) and her mum Sarah (great performance from Ashley McGuire). Life is getting on top of Sam and he can only see one way out. Standing on the top of Clement Atlee House he is about to end it all when some teenagers spot him and shout “Jump, you pussy!” Their mobile phone footage goes viral and soon loads of locals knock his door down to talk to Sam.
But they are not hoping to stop him committing suicide – they want him to do it in the name of their cause or concern. His ex-girlfriend and a local rapper see it working to their advantage. A filmmaker wants Sam’s suicide to act as a catalyst like Mohamed Bouazizi, the Tunisian street trader whose suicide sparked the Arab Spring. A mental health manager wants Sam to expose her department’s lack of council funding and the slimy Blairite local councillor wants to point the finger at the malpractice of the mental health services. “Do it, but do it for us,” they all cry.
The play is fast and funny, high in energy and packed with contemporary cultural references and jokes. I was smiling almost all the way through and the crowd around me were often roaring with laughter. At first you feel you are at a live recording of a sitcom – which clearly wouldn’t be to everyone’s taste. Not me though – I love great sitcoms, from Porridge to Modern Family. They can be as sophisticated and cutting about everyday life as many plays only wish they were. There was even a time when radical plays, some of which owed much to the same commedia dell’arte origins as sitcoms do, were huge in the West End. Such hits as Accidental Death of an Anarchist and Can’t Pay? Won’t Pay! (both written by Italian revolutionary playwright Dario Fo) thrilled left leaning audiences. This was before the West End was taken over by Lord Lloyd-Webber (who, let’s remember, voted to cut working family tax credits).
The National Theatre is seen by some as a palace of the relatively privileged but there are tickets for most shows at London cinema prices (£15) and the crowd on the night I went was blacker and more female than most left wing meetings achieve. The National seems to have recognised that there is an appetite for thought-provoking, political plays and this season includes Les Blancs (rebellion in colonial Africa), The Plough and the Stars (1916 rebellion in colonial Ireland) alongside Brecht’s Threepenny Opera and Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.(https://rs21.org.uk/2016/02/17/ma-raineys-black-bottom/)
But what of this re-writing of The Suicide? It seems wrong to criticise an artwork for what it doesn’t do, but I believe it is valid to point to the limits of this version’s achievements. The play portrays the people of Sam’s community with some credibility and sympathy for their plight. But by limiting the cast of characters to those present in the community the play fails to look further afield to see the real causes of peoples’ problems. For example the play lampoons the kids with their YouTube fixation and the faux radical film-maker (excellent energetic performance from Paul Kaye) but there’s no mention of the mainstream media. There’s jokes about locals doing deals to make a bit of money but nothing about the bankers creating the crisis from which they are all suffering or the super rich tax dodging starving our services. There is an attempt to address this with a fleeting appearance from the overseer of neoliberalism Margaret Thatcher but it fails to fit into the play in an integral way. Whereas, for example, Can’t Pay? Won’t Pay! a play set in a very similar council flat, where poverty-struck women choose to liberate the food they need from the supermarket, satirises the police, the power of big business and the role of reactionary trade unionists.
Of course we have to be able to laugh at ourselves. Satire can be used to expose the powerful and the privileged but it can also poke fun at the flaws and fixations of ordinary people. This version of The Suicide does the latter. In Stalin’s Russia the writer of The Suicide was arrested and deported to Siberia for satirising the new rulers of Russia. Satirists in Tory Britain do not need to be so fearful…
(Ominous voice-over): “Or do they?”
The Suicide continues at the National Theatre until 25 June.