Review: Manchester Theatre School performs The Suicide at Home

  • Riveting production by final year MMU students
  • Classic play banned by Stalin in revolutionary Russia

Some people need a reason to live. Semyon Smeyonovich needs a reason to die.

Or at least a reason to take his own life. Luckily – or unluckily – for him there are plenty of people more than willing to give him a pretext to depart the world of revolutionary Russia.

In Nikolai Erdman’s ground-breaking play, The Suicide, which is being performed at Home by final year MMU theatre school students, a range of mutinous characters line up to provide suicide notes for Semyon, each detailing their own disillusionment with what they see as the unfulfilled promises of Soviet Russia. In this play, they literally take their grievances out on him.

Poor Semyon – played with phlegmatic vigour by Ned Cooper (a future Barrie Rutter surely) – is certain that suicide would be the noblest of exits from his humdrum life: jobless, supported by his long-suffering wife (Kally McGowan) and shrill mother-in-law (Maryam Ali), he can’t even learn the tuba properly.

A good death should never be wasted and when word gets out about Semyon’s suicidal intentions he suddenly becomes very popular. The intelligentsia claim him for their own; the Orthodox Church want him to pray for them; businessmen see currency in his actions; and even decadent nightclub dancers view him as a potential saviour.

The only one – besides his family – who tries to dissuade Semyon from making the ultimate sacrifice is dissolute neighbour Alexander Kalabushkin, played with bear-like energy by Jordan Tweddle, who mourns his wife’s early death by sleeping with another man’s wife.

Erdman’s sly denunciation of revolutionary zeal accounts no doubt for the play being banned by Stalin on its premiere, and the use of character archtypes to make its point renders it it the feel of an expressionist play, turning the idea of ‘people’s art’ on its head.

Directed with wit and earthy humour by David Shirley, the play boasts some hilarious set pieces mixing verbal gymnastics with knockabout routines. Watching Maryam Ali as Serafima Illnichna attempt to seduce her son-in-law in an effort to detract him from suicide is a joyous moment for all the wrong reasons. And the end of act one in which Semyon is spun from person to person – and cause to cause – as he prepares for what appear to be his final moments is serious fun.

The play is a perfect vehicle to display the ensemble acting talent of the theatre school and no doubt will go a long way to securing the futures of these young actors.

The play is a sheer delight and like a matryoshka doll, the surprises keep on coming.

Until 4 November at Home.