Review by Sam Waite
The relationship between a performer and their audience is not unlike a personal relationship – someone exposes their hopes, their dreams their faults and their doubts, all in the hope of forging a genuine connection. Marcelo Dos Santos, represented on the West End by Backstairs Billy, leans into this need for approval – both public and intimate – in the Bush Theatre transfer of Fringe hit Feeling Afraid As If Something Terrible Is Going To Happen.
An unnamed comedian takes to the stage, introducing himself as being 36 (but that's okay!) and only recently in his first real relationship. Losing his rhythm and restarting the set, he reintroduces himself – he is 36, he's a comedian, and he's about to kill his boyfriend. What follows is an hour of story-driven standup comedy which veers threateningly in and out of darkness, always guided by and under the shadow of that titular feeling – something terrible is going to happen.
Dos Santos is bold, even brazen, with the topics and tonal shifts of his script, lending a too-open quality to The Comedian that make diversions into trauma and depressed thinking easier to follow. Essentially, the standup set itself is truly funny, utilising shocking gags, the all-important rule of threes, and allowing key points to settle into the background before strong pay-offs, deepened by the joke being given room to breathe. Tragedy and underlying anxiety are treated similarly, with Dos Santos’ understanding of how comedy operates, proven in metatextual jokes later on, allowing the audience to momentarily forget how unsettled the bleaker moments make them feel, creating a sharper contrast between the extended monologue's two modes – laugh out loud comedy, and razor-sharp commentary on what we need from those we love.
The simple set, with a red curtain suggesting a grand auditorium, helps to immerse us in two worlds – the smaller, less flashy gigs The Comedian references playing brought to life by the closeness of the audience, and the grandeur of the kind of place he imagines performing realised by the curtain. Designer Kat Heath also provides the effective costuming, cladding our leading man in a simple ensemble emblazoned with a laughing mouth on the back. This is a fun detail that becomes sinister as the story progresses, adding to what the ensemble tells us about the character - it's everyday, it's non-remarkable, and it's a little bit camp. Elliot Griggs’ lighting finalises the illusion of a standup gig, with suspended lights over the audience accompanying the harsh light enveloping the performer, and with sudden plunges into darkness demonstrating shifts both in tone and within the story itself.
The Comedian is brought to richly detailed life by Samuel Barnett, whose work is never anything less than captivating. He is consistently believable as a comedian going off on tangents in the hood of unearthing a new joke, without ever compromising the emotional turmoil that drives both story and character in Feeling Afraid. Already nominated for an Olivier Award and a pair of Tonys, this may prove to be the defining performance of Barnett's career, so astute is his timing and so deep is his understanding of the role. With his stellar work, The Comedian may make questionable (sometimes outright terrible) choices, but the audience is never without empathy or understanding of how his life has lead to these moments.
Matthew Xia rounds out a strong year of work with Feeling Afraid’s London transfer. Alongside directing the Olivier-winning (and slightly different, in terms of audience) Hey Duggee, Xia’s Actor’s Touring Company have presented the medical-history drama Family Tree, bus-set moving historical tale The Architect, and the incendiary anti-racist battle cry that was Tambo & Bones. Ending the year with a bang, Xia helps to bring the humanity and deep-seated trauma of The Comedian to rich life. Under his guidance, changes in what direction the performer faces aren't just to include the entire thrust-seated audience, but to look around for support that never seems to come.
A brilliant choice is made in The Comedian’s microphone acting as a barrier between him and the rest of the world – even walking closer to an audience member, the mic will keep a degree of separation, and moments where a difficult truth is spoken without it being held to his mouth are met with visible panic. Not present in the text itself, the increasingly suggested idea of what is said away from the mic being true is the final touch that solidifies the performance as both telling us a story and trying to dress it up more nicely and palatable than it truly is – comedy as a plea for adoration, but also as a means to disguise one's truest feelings.
Equal parts fearless and fearful, Feeling Afraid As If Something Terrible Is Going To Happen is a perfectly paced, immaculately performed hour or so of comedy so dark, so sinister in its intentions, that it's impossible to not be captivated. Certain to shock and even offend those of more delicate sensibilities, the sheer strength of the storytelling and of Barnett’s charming but genuinely unsettling performance are undeniable. A victory all around; Feeling Afraid is the kind of story that only the intimacy of fringe theatre can truly do justice, and proves that Dos Santos is a playwright to watch moving forward.
Feeling Afraid As If Something Terrible Is Going To Happen plays at the Bush Theatre until December 23rd
For tickets and information visit https://www.bushtheatre.co.uk/event/feeling-afraid-as-if-something-terrible-is-going-to-happen/
Photos by The Other Richard
This review was written exclusively for www.allthatdazzles.co.uk and cannot be repurposed in its entirety on any other website without prior consent.