Luckless, jobless, and desperate, Semyon Semyonovich is thunderstruck with joy: He has suddenly hit upon a reason for living. “I’ve got the will, I’ve got the time, I’ve got the manual: the only thing missing is the tuba.” Coffee-shop proprietress Margarita filches one from the Federated Socialist Jazz Quintet, but when Semyon’s teach-yourself manual turns out to be a con, he abandons hope and decides to kill himself. Moira Buffini’s “Dying for It” riskily mixes satire and sentiment, hilarity and pain, but Anna Mackmin’s zinger of a production makes the balancing act look easy.
Buffini’s play is a free adaptation of Nikolai Erdman’s 1928 bitter comedy “The Suicide.” It’s not hard to grasp why it was unseen in the Soviet Union until 1983, not only banned by Stalin but resulting in Erdman being sent to Siberia for seven years.
His wife and friends urgently insist that “life is beautiful” in 1920s Russia, but faced with grime, hunger and despair, Semyon (Tom Brooke) declares his intent to die, politely penning a suicide note explaining that “no-one is to blame.” Everyone in earshot and beyond immediately swoops in to hijack him for their individual cause.
Former aristocrat Aristarkh (snakily preening Ronan Vibert) persuades him to die “on behalf of all Russian thinking men” by blaming the government. Father Yelpidy (Tony Rohr) insists he “drink poison, blow your head off, drown yourself … to turn the wayward millions back to God.”
The humorless postman from the room upstairs (Paul Rider), proud possessor of “The People’s Award for Speed and Diligence in Postal Deliveries,” insists he must do it “for The Party.”
With bribery, corruption and sexual favors on offer, events turn increasingly farcical. Director Mackmin, however, never loses her grip on the increasingly boisterous activity, given real urgency and pace by Lez Brotherston’s set.
The designer uses the Almeida’s beautifully curved back wall to create a dingy, over-populated stairwell lit, paradoxically, with expressive shadows by Neil Austin. A wide, sweeping wrought-iron staircase curls up from hidden depths, opens out onto rooms on two landings, and rises still farther to another unseen room. Not only does this vividly convey separate lives lived helplessly on top of one another, it naturally creates multiple entrances which Mackmin uses to dynamic comic effect.
Thus Susan Brown’s deliciously fierce pragmatist of a mother-in-law, Serafima, can slip amusingly into moments of marital strife. Or Charlie Condou can swagger in as the marvelously bad, seriously smug State Poet.
Best of all, Sophie Stanton’s Margarita emerges effortlessly from every room to stand watchfully by the banisters offering sage advice which motors the plot. Stanton not only abandons cliches to present Margarita as a hard-bitten tart with no heart, she simultaneously conveys her character’s abiding compassion without a hint of self-indulgence.
Angular as a coat hanger, rising star Brooke is pitch-perfect as Semyon, alternately hollowed by despair and galvanized by opportunity. It’s not just his hair that stands out on end, it’s as if every last-minute promise and crashed hope electrocutes his entire body. But it’s the detail in his wide-eyed portrayal of a man beyond the end of his rope that makes his plight not merely funny but affecting.
Not every perf is at that level, but Mackmin’s entire company has a handle on the emotions rooting the bizarrely enjoyable pre-suicide party scene that opens the second half. The director pulls off the difficult trick of making a highly choreographed vodka-drenched knees-up — complete with live accordion and clarinet music and gleeful Cossack dancing — feel spontaneous.
By contrast, the final plot twist reduces the entire auditorium to a shocked silence, allowing auds to realize just how much emotion they have unwittingly invested in what feels like a boisterous comedy.
Even more impressive is the fact that Mackmin joined the production with no preparation when Kathy Burke, the play’s original director, was taken ill the night before rehearsals began. Clocking Serafima posing for an official portrait beside Semyon’s coffin — is he or isn’t he dead? — Aristarkh remarks, “Madam, forgive me, but I don’t think a smile is appropriate.” Watching Mackmin’s production, audiences will beg to differ.