Feeling Afraid As If Something Terrible Is Going To Happen, Bush Theatre
Wednesday 15th November 2023
The Comedian runs, bounces even, onto the stage. The audience immediately applauds. It’s gonna be fun. He seizes the mic and makes self-deprecatory gestures. Then he rubs the mic stand suggestively. We laugh. We love him. When he turns around we can see a laughing mouth printed on the back of his shirt. Sums up the show. Who is he? It’s Samuel Barnett — former history boy and star of stage and screen — and the audience instantly warms to him. He’s that kind of guy. Which is just as well because the Comedian who delivers Marcelo Dos Santos’s sizzling 65-minute monologue, now at the Bush Theatre after opening last year at the Edinburgh Fringe, is not completely likeable. He has problems.
Joking that a better title for his work is “sad for pay”, or “professional neurotic”, the stand-up Comedian introduces himself as a 36-year-old who’s never been in “a proper relationship” — that is, until he meets the American, a beautiful man with perfect teeth who is also attracted to him. On their first date in Hackney, the Comedian demonstrates why he is still single: he is constantly apologising, excruciatingly self-conscious and unable to be truly honest. But he’s also very funny; we laugh with him, at him, along with him. His jokes are great and his new-found love looks, feels even, very much like the real thing.
Then he invites the American to one of his gigs. A show in which he creates laughter out of the traumas that have been his experience of growing up. Everything goes great, his audience is buzzing, except for one thing. The Comedian’s boyfriend doesn’t laugh — not once. This is because he suffers from one terrible condition: he has a nerve condition called cataplexy — similar to narcolepsy — which means that strong emotional triggers such as laughter or excessive excitement are dangerous. A sudden joke could kill him. He is constantly at risk.
So this monologue is about a very odd, but somehow very apt, couple: the neurotic English guy with self-esteem issues and the confident American guy who simply can’t let go. But as well as being an acute and perceptive character study, the one-man show is also a brilliant stand-up routine. The Comedian not only narrates the story of his relationship, he also dissects the anatomy of a comedy gig, explains the workings of slapstick, and comments constantly on the tension between autobiographical material and real life. Anecdotes and names are continuously unreliable. At the same time, he is also constantly drawn back to the hook-up app and its promise of sexual pleasure without emotional commitment.
Dos Santos, whose Backstairs Billy is currently wowing audiences in the West End, writes beautifully: he sets up expectations by having his Comedian start the show three times, each variation telling us something new about the character, before the final one which ends with: “I’m 36, I’m a comedian, and I’m about to kill my boyfriend.” It’s intriguing; it’s funny and sometimes it’s filthy. His gigs usually open with a question to the audience: “Anyone ever cum blood while having sex and feel like you’re going to die?” There are mentions of pissing on Czech twinks and of semen gutters.
At the same time, as befits a romance, there are lovely scenes when our couple visit art galleries to check out old master paintings of fit young men, or cuddle up to watch the telly. But the Comedian’s neurotic drives, his deep pain, his grief, is always there, lurking just under the surface, ready to spring out and spoil everything. It’s a study in self-sabotage. That’s the trouble with meeting Mr Right — the American’s perfection ups the stakes. Our Comedian is repeatedly tempted, by forces he barely understands, to fuck things up, and we can see this even more clearly than he does. As it’s title suggests, Feeling Afraid As If Something Terrible Is Going To Happen is a compelling play that mixes laughs with emotional tension.
Here humour is shown to be both a personal and an obsessive defence mechanism against the pain of bad stuff, as well as a metaphor for Englishness, a culture which swerves away from the truth of economic collapse by hyping up the fun in our public culture. The need to make people laugh puzzles the American and Dos Santos cleverly shows how the Comedian can’t leave joking alone. Even when he sees a therapist for some CBT, he answers the questionnaire about his fears of something terrible happening with a clear 10 out of 10 — then immediately scribbles a smiley face next to the answer. It’s a neat example of his compulsive need to be liked.
Barnett plays the role with utter conviction, whether smiling awkwardly or looking devastated, and he uses his voice like a musical instrument, fluting through various registers, hitting falsetto peaks and then dipping into sadder tones. He gives voice to the American, to his own mother, and a small cast of other comics and pick-ups. Matthew Xia’s compelling production, brightly designed by Kat Heath, is like a wild taxi ride, with rapid accelerations, sudden turns, screeching stops, and Barnett uses the stage with enormous confidence and charisma, occasionally dropping the mic to deliver a deeper personal revelation from the Comedian, or allowing a bit of amplified feedback to grate on our nerves. It’s barnstorming; it’s the monologue of the year.
This review first appeared on The Arts Desk
- Feeling Afraid As If Something Terrible Is Going To Happen is at the Bush Theatre until 23 December.