The Comeuppance

Almeida Theatr

‘Emotional guts and gore’

In the age of Facebook and Instagram, the whammy of a school reunion is lessened to a certain point.

But reuniting with an older version of yourself trapped in the memories of other people is an utterly jarring experience.

It is an experience that Branden Jacobs Jenkins tackles with a spectral touch in the UK premiere of his 2023 play, The Comeuppance, at the Almeida.

Emilio (played by Anthony Welsh) is a tortured artist, American expat, and returning self-described truth-teller.

He describes the feeling as fernweh, a German word that is the opposite of homesickness.

Emilio, who has flown in from Berlin for his 20th high school reunion, clashes with his former crew. Emotional guts and gore follow on the porch of his friend Ursula’s house.

This all sounds well and good, if a little predictable, until Jacobs-Jenkins sprinkles some spooky into the mix: death.

Inhabiting each actor in turn, the action pauses with a creepy echo and blue light, and the perfect American accents are dropped in favour of (we assume) the actor’s own voices.

These flashes, and fourth-wall-breaking conversations with the old cold one are ridiculous, poignant, unnerving and, thankfully, cut through the non-stop reminiscing.

They save the play from the doldrums that we have all felt when having to listen to people talk about the halcyon days that you are completely locked out from.

Apart from set designer Arnulfo Maldonado’s porch, and lovely moving set pieces that slowly launch death (in whatever form) closer to the audience, it’s all down to the actors.

The cast nibbles and downright chomps chunks out of each other, careening between almost every possible topic for disagreement at a drunken sprint.

Tamara Lawrance is Ursula. Blinded in one eye and reeling from the loss of her grandmother, she is full of quiet pathos and reluctant to join the others at the reunion.

Yolanda Kettle arrives next, as the blonde and bubbling Caitlin. She is naïvely optimistic, wanting to escape the past and her own school relationship trauma. But does the play allow her that? Of course not!

Katie Leung is Kristina, such a riotous role. A “good” Catholic, ex-military doctor, barely recovered from the horrors of Covid, leaning on alcohol and good times to distract from her unhappiness with motherhood, or as she puts it: “So many fucking children.”

Leung slurps up every opportunity the script offers, and has such fun with it, as Kristina is paralytically drunk for most of the play.

Kristina brings Caitlin’s ex, Paco (Ferdinand Kingsley), scarred in almost every way from service in Afghanistan. Kingsley is the swaggering frat boy, badly covering an unimaginably crumpled human being.

You know the dancers in this waltz: shared memory, unrequited love, resentment, political disagreement, the horrors of ageing, and the divergence of life.

Each adult constantly questions what they have in common, and whether they ever had anything in common? Do they really know each another? Strangers on a porch, engaged in a dance macabre to early 2000s hits.

The pressure is very much on the five, and don’t they rise to the occasion.

Jacobs Jenkins weaves in threads of history’s effects on identity, largely using Covid and 9/11 – though these two events are the only times when his metaphorical pen seems a little blunt.

The themes are explored with none of the complexity he reserves for the tongue-in-cheek appearances of death.

Similarly, Eric Ting’s direction brings the best welling-up from the actors, yet there is a tendency for frantic pacing that shoots everything along. It leads to lost lines and unnatural speaking patterns.

Nevertheless, for anyone who has ever run into a school “friend” unexpectedly, this play reminds you just how lucky you were. It could have been so much worse.

The discussion of self and its relationship with shared tragedy is layered, and the character’s comeuppance is a hefty one.

Death proclaims: “I, like you, am a watcher.”

This voyeuristic, psychological car crash unfolds with an engaging if not mind-blowing sense of inevitability.

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