The Comeuppance – Almeida, London

Reviewer: Richard Maguire

Writer: Branden Jacobs-Jenkins

Director: Eric Ting

Death is the first guest to arrive at a party of millennials celebrating their 20th high school reunion in Maryland in 2022. It’s not clear who he’s come to collect. And as the play progresses it doesn’t really matter as all of the characters are dead inside in some way, broken by the pressures of 21st Century America, ominously signalled by the Stars and Stripes flag that hangs outside the porch of the house where the party takes place. Death can wait. He always gets what he wants in the end.

Maybe he’s there for Emilio, the soundscape artist who now lives in Berlin. With his European ways and his slight disdain for the others, Emilio is the most likeable and the most familiar of the five characters who gather for the pregame bash. But Anthony Welsh also allows the audience to know that a sadness, full of secrets, hovers behind his otherwise cheery façade. Welsh is excellent here, utterly convincing as he finally dredges up dramas from the past.

Or perhaps Death has come for Ursula. She owns the house, immaculately designed by Arnulfo Maldonado, where the friends meet before they travel to the reunion in a limousine, a throwback to the times they would arrive at their school proms. Tamara Lawrance’s Ursula is the most underexplored character of the whole play. She has lost sight in one eye, putting to waste the mixology course she took on Zoom during lockdown. As the guests arrive, she busies herself with pouring drinks and rolling joints. Everyone is too afraid to ask how she is really getting on.

Caitlin is a marvellous creation, at first ditsy, saying all the wrong things. She loves a good gossip in the same way as Death does. But her life has come to an early stop. Married to an older and retired cop who was somehow involved in the storming of the Capitol, she keeps in contact with the boys from school who signed up for the military and fought in Iraq and Afghanistan. Her social media is full of men posing with guns and trucks. Yolanda Kettle expertly navigates between desperation and hope.

Her ex-boyfriend from school also turns up at the gathering even though Paco was not a member of MERGE, an acronym for Multi-Ethnic Rejects Group. Suffering from PTSD, Paco isn’t the kind of ex-marine one expects. He is not the usual kind of jarhead seen in films, but more of a bore as he inveigles himself too intimately within the other MERGEs. Wearing a jacket with the sleeves rolled up, Ferdinand Kingsley plays Paco so against stereotype that it’s difficult to believe in him. He’s the one character that doesn’t quite ring true in this American state-of-the-nation play.

Katie Leung is Kristina, a Catholic doctor with five children. Death doesn’t mind that she tries to stop people from dying; in fact, he thinks that she prepares his guests for the inevitable. Loud, brash and drunk, Kristina is occasionally too comical in her determination to relive her youth, but Leung is fully committed in her role and brings the biggest laughs when she ventriloquises Death in a Scottish accent.

A hit across America, Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ play retains its director Eric Ting, and although it charts the lives of Americans, the issues it covers – Covid lockdowns, two-party politics, religion, violence, abortion – are recognisable in the UK. Jacobs-Jenkins, who is most familiar here with The Octoroon, packs many subjects into his two-hour play, which runs without an interval, but they never overwhelm The Comeuppance as they reflect a real lived experience of a society coming out of lockdown.

Death may ultimately view that period through rose-tinted glasses – just listen to the the second series of Jon Ronson’s Things Fall Apart on BBC Sounds to remember the culture wars that erupted during the pandemic – but the end of the play is almost Chekhovian in nature as it gestures to the inexorable. Who knows if this play will be revived in years to come, but for now, in 2024, it seems very important.

Runs until 18 May 2024

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The Reviews Hub London is under the acting editorship of Richard Maguire. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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