Go and see The Grand Gesture if it comes anywhere near you! Despite an unprepossessing original title (the Suicide), being adapted from the Russian, and an opening sequence entirely in the dark, it is one of the funniest, cleverest, most moving and thought-provoking nights at the theatre you will find anywhere. Don’t take my word for it – see for yourself.
Our hero, Simeon Duff (Hugo) is northern (Scouse), unemployed and depressed. He is ashamed to take the extra sausage at tea because he hasn’t earned it, his wife Mary (Robinson) has, and despite her reassurances he sees nothing for it but to end it all. Horrified his faithful wife informs the landlord who sees an opportunity to profit from this potential suicide – and a series of social vultures gather.
The play’s political credentials are as radical as they come. Erdman’s original, written in 1928 and snapped up by Stanislavsky and Meyerhold the founders of post-revolutionary Russian drama, was banned by Stalin’s Cultural Revolution crack-down, so the play only premiered in 1969 and in Sweden. Thankfully, McAndrew’s adaptation doesn’t labour the politico- historical significance, instead she points to the contemporary tyranny of fame which is equally toxic to individual freedoms and explores what is currently worth dying for… with the lightest of touches.
Belly laugh slapstick is brilliantly executed, particularly by Simeon himself who manages somehow to nuance growing hysteria through a series of fantastic set pieces leading to a tremendous climax in a coffin. He is surrounded by gems of performances – not a duff (!) one among them. I particularly enjoyed the Marxist postman and his bowel movements (Barnhill), mother-in-law Sadie (Bain) who’s exquisite asides and comic timing suggest she’s a Mother Courage to be. She extracted jokes and music as well as refreshment from the glass of egg flip, typical of her entire performance. Pickavance’s intellectual Victor Stark with his reptilian tongue, McMahon’s adorably fallible priest, and Morris’ soft-hearted butcher combine with strong women (Storey, Hatfield, Arden) to people a world where humanity, integrity and loyalty are seen as commodities for sale, and subject to persuasion and influence. It takes strong direction to extract and then manage such rich performances – which Nelson has achieved in spades.
If I have one gripe with the adaptation it would be to give more variety of roles to the women since other liberties have been taken with original text, it was perhaps an opportunity have the females stand for more than the traditionally female-gendered love/sex or home/family – but in the face of such splendid performances all round this is a footnote.
It is great to see so much clowning, physical theatre and use of ‘le geste’ in a play with this title, but this is also cast of actor musicians– they play and sing superbly doing credit to Nelson’s original music and the wistful nostalgia of the traditional songs.
It is an all-round good production – great costumes, sets, lighting, music but what stands out is the text. McAndrew’s adaptation is a joy. Her characterisation is pitch-perfect: balancing Stark’s linguistic excess ‘exiting with intrinsic exuberance’ with the postman’s ‘Marxist viewpoint’ which leads to a moment of pure comedy. She combines a breadth of high cultural reference (lots of Hamlet appropriately enough given the imminence of death) with a keen ear for popular culture and the deadpan quotidian ‘when I was a kid I wanted to be a hero – my parents were dead against it’. Allowing the same questions asked by literary giants to resonate through the ordinary voices of humdrum characters is an effective tribute to the play’s original socialist manifesto.