THE GRAND GESTURE at the Tobacco Factory, Bristol

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This year’s crop of Bristol Old Vic Theatre School students are undoubtedly a talented bunch and within the obvious constraints of casting a play with diverse ages amongst a group with reasonably homogenous ages turn in a very entertaining performance of this once banned Soviet era play. The reasons for the Russian authorities banning the play are obscure and probably lie in a dusty record somewhere, but it’s a fair assumption that the central theme of despair and attempted suicide through lack of work and subsequent loss of identity may have had something to do with it since how could one possibly despair in the best of all possible societies?

This adaption by Deborah McAndrew of Nikolai Erdman’s 1928 play, The Suicide, gives the original Russian a non-specific, but metropolitan UK setting with characters drawn from all over the kingdom. The theme and surrealist treatment of the story give it a clear ‘pre-absurd’ lineage which sits in a tradition going back to Greek Old Comedy with it’s mix of styles, cross-dressing, chorus and flights of fancy. Frustrated at not being able to play the tuba in a day, Simeon (Simon Riordan) decides that the failure of this one last chance to lift himself out of poverty leaves him with but one course of action – suicide. Word quickly spreads amongst his neighbours and further afield prompting his landlord, the recently widowed, but sexually promiscuous Al, (given a cajolingly silky performance by Marcus Fraser), to sell his proposed suicide as an act of self-sacrifice for a cause célèbre, a number of whose opportunist representatives signify the intelligentsia, religion, the arts, politics, business and love. Each one stakes their claim to be associated with the death that keeps on giving, sharpening the satire with each plausible pitch.

Tilly Steele, as Simeon’s mother in law, had in one sense drawn the short straw in having to play a couple of generations above her own. Her reward is having some of the best lines as the Irish woman with a saint for every occasion and an easy familiarity with some un-Christian language. Whilst she may not have physically inhabited the body of the old sinner she undoubtedly found her spirit.

Martha Seignior as Simeon’s wife, Mary, understood that in this kind of play the actor has to play the moment rather than the character so cleverly found the humour as the loving wife who nevertheless finds it in her heart to be short tempered when Simeon’s suicide turns out to be bungled.

Simeon is the most problematic role for an actor, having to convince himself that death is the only answer whilst navigating between the peaks and troughs that lie between pathos and bathos whilst maintaining a paradoxical credulous intelligence. Mr Riordan comes within a whisker of pulling off the trick and would he but resist the temptation to throw himself into each line would get even closer.

Harry Egan gives a nicely detailed revolutionary postman with a penchant for voyeurism and the rest of the cast whilst forming an entertaining ensemble each give nicely observed characters that bring a richness to a successful production.

Set designer, Sam Wilde, gives coherence and character to one of the few constructed sets I’ve personally seen at the Tobacco Factory whilst costume designer, Elizabeth Harper shows an eye for the telling detail that lifts a character for both actor and audience.

This is a highly enjoyable production that will be a good stepping stone for all concerned.   Graham Wyles    6/06/15   (We do not give star ratings to student productions)