Dying for It, Almeida, London

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Nikolai Erdman never saw his satirical comedy The Suicide performed in Russia: it was banned by the Soviet authorities in 1932. And, watching Moira Buffini’s vivid adaptation, retitled Dying for It, it’s not surprising that they weren’t keen. It offers a piercing critique of the Soviet system; it is also very sharp, black as pitch and wickedly funny.

Focus of the attention is Semyon Semyonovich, an unemployed little nobody who lives in the hallway of a once splendid house. The misery, poverty and hunger of his daily grind are driving him to despair and, as we join him, he is resolving on suicide. This is, of course, a desperate and serious scenario. But Erdman makes it the starting point for a farce that mercilessly picks apart the notion of a communist utopia. For, having meant nothing in his life, Semyon finds himself a cause célèbre in his death. Visitors queue up to press their causes upon him: a poet of the people, a frustrated intellectual, a dissolute priest and a Bohemian femme fatale all urge him to die for them. As Aristarkh, the self-styled intellectual observes: “only the dead may say what the living think”.

There’s a whip-round to buy him a funeral “modelled on Lenin’s” and a party to see him off in style. The only problem is that, having become so popular, Semyon is reluctant to do himself in. Meanwhile the grey, grisly poverty of life seeps out in comic detail, with Buffini’s loving, pungent translation talking of “chicken-style- stew”, and Anna Mackmin’s buoyant production relishing the alacrity with which the characters seize on every chance to be on the make.

As Semyon, Tom Brooke holds the stage. Thin and pliant as a pipecleaner, his saucer eyes and startled hair give him an air of permanent surprise. He performs with beautiful timing and is complemented by his pragmatic wife (Liz White) and mother-in-law, (Susan Brown). There’s good work too from Ronan Vibert as the posing intellectual, Tony Rohr as a stained and sozzled priest and Sophie Stanton as a tart with a heart. And Lez Brotherston’s spiral-staircase set suggests decayed splendour and cleverly frames the emotional journey between despair and hope.
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