The Grand Gesture – Reviewed

Jennie Tsai arrived at the Liverpool Playhouse in search of a grand gesture; she found that and more in a new production of a banned Russian play… 

Lively, light and literary – The Grand Gesture tells the story of Simeon Duff (Michael Hugo), an unemployed, desperate young man, living in the North of England, who feels compelled to end his life.

Based on a Russian satire called The Suicide written by a 28 year old writer and playwright, Nikolai Erdman in 1928, it was banned shortly after; it eventually received its world premiere in Sweden in 1969 but was not performed in Russia until 1982.

Amidst the background of Stalinist Russia, Erdman found his work received with hostility and he was arrested in 1933 for his satirical writings about life in the USSR and banished to Siberia for 3 years.

“Deborah McAndrew and Conrad Nelson have deftly produced a spirited production”

Back to present day, writer Deborah McAndrew and director, Conrad Nelson with the Northern Broadsides theatre company in partnership with Harrogate Theatres, have deftly produced a spirited production of the original play, complete with an array of colourful, larger than life characters.

Transposed to the more contemporary (but unspecified) North-Western setting of a port, it accentuates the stark relevance of the play to a Liverpool audience.

From the beginning, The Grand Gesture presents a darkly comic, surreal world, in which musicians freely wander into the dank and dingy bedroom of Simeon, entertaining us with tuneful interludes. When, prompted by his loyal wife, Mary (Samantha Robinson) and wonderfully comic Irish mother-in-law, Sadie (Angela Bain), Simeon fails to learn the tuba as a possible alternative career, the only prospect seems to be to end it all.

Northern Broadsides' production of The Grand Gesture

At this point, the macabre element of the play comes into full flow, as a host of characters then descend upon him like vultures in order to exploit him and his ‘grand gesture’ for their particular cause, whether this be political, religious or romantic. Such unsavoury characters include a Marxist postman (Paul Barnhill), an intellectual (Robert Pickavance), a Catholic priest (Father McCloud), a businessman (Nicholas Pugh), and two rivals in love (Sophia Hatfield and Hester Arden).

Riotous and anarchic performances are enthusiastically delivered by the cast of 11; Michael Hugo plays the central character with admirable frenetic energy, and conveying required pathos in the more existential moments. His long-suffering wife is played by Samantha Robinson wife with clarity and sympathy, whilst his mother-in-law is reminiscent of Mrs Doyle from Father Ted.

“The play serves as a critique of society, of tyranny and the commodification of human life”

If at times the premise of the play seems slightly contrived, and the absurd, riotous characters border occasionally upon the caricature, a darker and more serious message undoubtedly lurks beneath the anarchic surface.

McAndrew says that one of her intentions was to “reimagine the play in a contemporary setting, where the triumph of Capitalism has led to a different type of oppression – a sort of commodification of the individual, and the emergence of a tyrannous mass culture, where achieving fame can justify, at best, a life of misery; at worst, an early death”.

Undoubtedly then, the play serves as a critique of society, of tyranny and the commodification of human life. It’s not all doom and gloom though as the hero ultimately finds some redemption and reasons to live and McAndrew refers to the “eloquent affirmation of the dignity of the individual and the wonder of Life” present in the original.

Entertaining and bizarrely different, The Grand Gesture veers between comedy and social satire with ease. McAndrew cleverly exploits Erdman’s original play, showing a skill for the vernacular and the highbrow, incorporating both elements of popular culture and more literary references.


Jennie Tsai

The Grand Gesture is on at the Liverpool Playhouse until Saturday 16 November 2013 

See full touring schedule here

Posted on 15/11/2013 by thedoublenegative