Feeling Afraid As If Something Terrible is Going to Happen opened at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2022 to rave reviews at Paines Plough’s Roundabout. I was lucky enough to catch it then and it quickly became a highlight of the festival, so was very keen to make a return visit for its London transfer to the Bush Theatre. I’m delighted to say that it’s maintained all the wit and charm from its first outing and I predict is going to have a great response from audiences once again.
We’re introduced to The Comedian (Samuel Barnett, reprising the role from last year). He’s a gay, 36-year-old, self-deprecating comedian, who spends his free time scrolling Grindr and hooking up with random men around the city. The sex is usually… fine. His comedy act often makes light of his personal “trauma”; a ‘bit’ about some oversized sausages at his father’s funeral, for example. But underneath it all, he appears to be actually very lonely. All this changes when he meets an unnamed American man who, for some reason, doesn’t laugh at any of his jokes. But that’s fine right? Or perhaps not? Stuck in a whirlpool of his own insecurities, The Comedian desperately seeks validation from his new partner, whilst developing romantic feelings along the way.
The playwright, Marcelo Dos Santos, has written the play like a stand-up routine: joke after joke after one-liner, etc. It really is a laugh a minute. Matthew Xia’s production sees a fairly bare stage, nothing but a tall stool and a microphone on a stand which, in its London transfer, sits in front of a large red theatrical curtain, which hangs as a backdrop in Kat Heath’s set. The Comedian does, after all, as he tells us, always need an audience. He needs to be on a stage, telling jokes, so this works very nicely. The jokes don’t always work though, and The Comedian often tweaks parts of the story live depending on what sounds better in the moment and has a few false starts at the beginning before he’s really ready to get going. The opening lines are of crucial importance of course.
Samuel Barnett’s performance is loaded with energy, as he springs around the performance space, playing his audience like a sport; with agility, specificity and always one step ahead of us. He performs most of the show through a handheld microphone, his carefully controlled voice rising or falling in pitch to keep us on our toes and, most importantly, make each and every build-up and punchline land as it should. Sometimes it’s not even the line itself, just the way he says it, which works its comedy magic. A fascinating section in the middle of the play sees the Comedian breaking down the structure of the comedy set, the carefully choreographed use of tone, alliteration, or everyone’s favourite “rule-of-three” to make a joke work. And there’s a juxtaposition that the text plays with, as the Comedian who can so perfectly and accurately predict the audience response to a joke, based on its setup, suddenly finds himself out of control over the happenings of his personal life. The text plays with words themselves. The words ‘I love you’ finally stump him. He just can’t say them. What makes Barnett’s performance so spectacular is the way he shifts from the comic to the tragic; as he suddenly finds himself all alone, forgetting about the microphone for a moment, and feeling, truly, totally afraid.
Elliot Grigg’s lighting design casts red and orange tones to create a theatrical quality, plunging us into large, bright lights and a spot on Barnett when he’s trying out a new joke, or creating a darker, more intimate environment for the moments where he’s looking deep within himself, brightening up again with heavenly white light when he has (really good) sex with the American for the first time. It’s powerfully subtle, until it’s not meant to be, and then it’s joyfully theatrical.
This is a rollercoaster of a play, which hardly stops for breath. The first ten minutes whiz by in a flash, and once we’ve jumped on for the ride, it’s hard not to cling to every word. Even on a second visit, the final punchline (which I won’t spoil here) still made me laugh. Barnett’s performance, under Xia’s slick and detailed direction, is full of surprises and is sure to go down a storm in the lead-up to Christmas.
Review by Joseph Dunitz
I’m 36, I’m a comedian, and I’m about to kill my boyfriend…”
After years of swiping, a permanently single, professionally neurotic stand-up finally meets Mr Right – and then does everything wrong.
FEELING AFRAID AS IF SOMETHING TERRIBLE IS GOING TO HAPPEN
By Marcelo Dos Santos
Francesca Moody Productions and Kater Gordon in association with Dianne Roberts and Bush Theatre
Booking until 23rd December 2023