Credit: Marc Brenner

The Comeuppance

The Comeuppance
Reviewer's Rating

The Comeuppance starts with 90s and 00s nostalgia bait playing the audience in. People bop idly in their seats to The Thong Song, shuffling their programmes as they wait for the lights to go down on Branden Jacob-Jenkins’ post-pandemic high school reunion play. And things are fairly comfortable at first – even Death, played by all of our main actors throughout the play, is chatty and genial. The humour is wry and well-played, and we almost feel like we’re part of this friendship circle, navigating old dynamics grown rusty, finding our groove. Everyone is deftly characterised, their awkward moments perfectly pitched. Caitlin (Yolanda Kettle) is particularly funny in this first section, and Ursula is played with smart, easy warmth by Tamara Lawrance.

Writer Branden Jacobs-Jenkins and director Eric Ting both described the American porch, on which the play is set, as a liminal space. It’s an unstable liminality we stay throughout: there is no easy path back to nostalgia and familiarity. The characters tussle over their knowledge of each other, over the ownership of their shared history. Always present is the tension between adulthood and a half-return to adolescence.

We watch as the fractures play out, helpless to stop it, uneasily complicit. We wanted to know the truth when Berlin-based artist Emilio (an excellent, sharp-edged Anthony Welsh) started prying at it. We were curious, wanted everything laid out – because of course we did. As Death tells us, we are all watchers. Aligned with Death themself, watching a friendship group explode across our stage. The tensions are there from the start: those who stayed in their hometown, versus those who got out; those with military experience versus those without. For much of the group, this community is still their life – but for Emilio it’s something else: something to be picked at, to be made to fit into the narrative he thinks he remembers.

Again and again, they are cruel to each other, and again and again they move on into laughter and in-jokes, in the way that you only can when you have known each other forever – although sometimes the resultant outbursts feel less full-bodied than they ought to. However much they try, the realities of brutal adulthood keep intruding – writ large in traumatised veteran Paco (an engaging Ferdinand Kingsley). Emilio wants desperately to understand Paco in the context of their adolescence – and perhaps he is right to insist that some of that darkness is dredged up, is not overwritten by Paco’s current woebegone state – but that is no longer the only context there is. His frozen understanding of his old schoolfriends wobbles, fails. And, ultimately, he is cut out of the one moment of real nostalgia because of his insistence on confronting the bare, ugly truth of Paco and Caitlin’s past.

That moment happens off-stage, only recounted to Emilio – and us – later on. It is not ours, either. We are only watchers, voyeurs. The moments without the rest of the group are lit brilliantly (Natasha Chivers), to genuinely spooky effect. By this point, we are no longer co-watchers with Death – we are being observed by them, too. A figure from the top window of the house surveys the audience. Unknowable, silent.

The Comeuppance expands as the tensions bubble to the surface – sometimes for the better, exploring the complications of the characters, the places they fail and misstep, and sometimes less effectively. Some of the franker, more explicit conversations leave less room for the ambiguities that power some of the earlier sections of the text. The closing moments, as Death tells us we were “the best versions of yourselves” during Covid-19, feels slightly pat – a shame, as one of the most moving moments of the play sees Katie Leung’s Kristina tearfully expand on the impact working as a doctor during the pandemic.

In the end, the play finds its way back to tenderness, but still the shadow lingers. We are made complicit once more, Death granting us the uncomfortable knowledge of what is to come. There is no true return, no matter the nostalgia. There is only a haunting, and the stubborn clinging to now.

By Branden Jacobs-Jenkins
Directed by Eric Ting
Cast: Tamara Lawrance, Ferdinand Kingsley, Anthony Welsh, Katie Leung, Yolanda Kettle
Venue: The Almeida Theatre, London
Until 18th May 2024