The Grand Gesture. Tobacco Factory, Bristol
Only as he lies in his coffin does serial loser Simeon Duff discover the wonders of life.
A midnight desire to eat sausages causes a marital bust between Simeon and his long suffering wife Mary resulting in a misunderstanding that he’s about to shoot himself. The crossed lines propel the drama into a farce through to its surprising end.
Bristol Old Vic Theatre School’s production of 1930s Russian dissident Nicolai Erdman’s play The Suicide transformed into The Grand Gesture by Debrah McAndrew is quirky, funny and full of youthful energy. Except for Tilly Steele who brilliantly plays Simeon’s Irish mother-in-law with the energy of a spritely OAP on Sanatogen, busy blessing the Saints and making egg flips as she shuffles around the scruffy flat.
There’s much to enjoy in this showcase of talents which in truth gets off to a slightly sluggish start but picks up momentum by the interval and races through the farcical events of the second half with a deftness of touch from director Gwenda Hughes.
Firstly Sam Wilde’s set with its wrinkly decollage newspaper trimmings and dingy doors and windows fixes the context of Simeon’s life set as it is in an unnamed town in an unnamed country in an unnamed time. Then there is the ensemble cast who each get under the skin of their various characters, whether it was the body language of the undertakers or the drunks celebrating Simeon’s suicide the following day.
It’s also a neat and witty farce with a series of set pieces, some wonderful lines and a perfect climax and haunting musical ending. But it is the acting that left its indelible mark on the production.
Simeon played by Simon Riordan as a slightly angrier version of TV’s Not Going Out’s Lee Mack had it all to do as the protagonist and by and large he held it all together. Initially it was hard to decide if he was simply an enjoyable idiot, a comic or a disgruntled husband. But by the end his disillusionment with his suicide gesture gave the drama the edge it required as his anger spilled out.
Martha Seignior was on top form as his Liverbird wife Mary as she struggled to come to terms with the fact she’d married Simeon – a dilemma faced by many a married woman – while her mother Sadie made for a perfect double act as she always looked on the bright side of life. A funeral – that means a new hat.
Marcus Fraser as landlord Al should find work in the professional theatre with his rich voice, stage presence and subtle changes of mood as he looked to take advantage of each situation. Erin Doherty and Peter Edwards played various roles and always added some physical comedy as they swept, cleaned or silently played out Simeon’s previous life at the start of the play.
The pompous Victor who most wanted to profit from Simeon’s gesture was believably boastful and full of himself and there was an exceptional turn form Harry Egan as the Marxist postman George complete with nervous ticks and contentious views which were perhaps the reason the original playwright was exiled to Siberia.
Kate Cavendish vamped it up as Maggie in her negligee and tumbling hair while the striking looking Anna Riding was excellent value as the woman determined to make Simeon die for love. Fervent Joel Macey as Pugh, Zed Josef as jaunty Father McLead and Rebecca Hamilton as the feisty Rosie all added their diverse personalities to the unfolding narrative and didn’t trip over each other’s lines.
One of the most enjoyable aspects of the production were the songs and music, and the humorous way they were staged. Morning Has Broken with its mobile illuminated harpist, flapping birds and angelic faces set the tone, while the Ballad of Simeon Duff was essentially the play’s theme tune.
‘Life is beautiful’ says the landlord to Simeon in the opening scene, but it takes two hours of plot twists and turns for the protagonist to realise the truism is… true. True that is once you’ve paid all the bills.