Review: Feeling Afraid As If Something Terrible Is Going To Happen, Bush Theatre, London

Photo: The Other Richard

While Marcelo Dos Santos’s West End debut Backstairs Billy is currently playing at Duke of York’s Theatre starring Penelope Wilton and Luke Evans, his Edinburgh Fringe hit Feeling Afraid As If Something Terrible Is Going To Happen returns to the stage with a run at London’s Bush Theatre. Samuel Barnett reprises his role in the one-man show that won both a Scotsman Fringe First and The Stage Edinburgh Award in 2022.

Directed by Matthew Xia, the play follows Barnett’s unnamed character who is ‘sad for pay’ but the kind of sad that’s funny. In other words, he’s a self-deprecating comedian, or as his American boyfriend would say ‘a comic’, but with the sadness ‘[layered] in irony, [encased] in the meta’ otherwise the jokes don’t work. Sad is a slightly inaccurate description, ‘permanently existential’ being a fairer pigeonholing given his preoccupation with death and his diagnosable hypochondria.

He’s also obsessed with figuring out what the problem with his perfect boyfriend is. He’s too perfect with his straight white teeth, the right teeth-to-gum ratio, sharp cheekbones, broad jaw and ‘the arms of a Disney Prince.’ This is the man that ‘looks like the guy Michelangelo dumped David for when he got rich and famous’. Even worse, he makes the Comedian ‘feel things.’

Dos Santos’s text is incredibly self-aware on two fronts, one is in its meta references to other works with unreliable narrators that stretch as far as a clever punchline about a comedian’s partner quoting Monty Python’s Dead Parrot Sketch during sex. ‘Ruined the vibe? I asked / Ruined the sketch. She has terrible timing.’ The other is in its approach to stand-up comedy and its analysis of joke-craft. Feeling Afraid… is very aware it’s a play and not the stand-up act it purports to be, but it weaves through the craft and builds up a play that has more laughs than many traditional stand-up Fringe hits.

There is maybe a little too much pondering on the differences between Americans and the English, including the stereotype of the English having bad teeth versus the American Hollywood smile – still, that’s a small quibble about a text that is as lean as our American’s abdominal muscles.

Barnett is incredible and delivers a barnstorming performance over the play’s 60 minutes – not just as the comedian but as the multitude of characters he embodies as they come in contact with him; partners, family members, fellow comedians and his therapist. He finds the right balance between a cliched impression of an American that works for the stand-up act and a character real enough for us to relate to.

Xia’s direction is slick and sharp but it allows space for the right amount of doubt to build in our minds – not so much that we do not discount everything our unreliable narrator confides in us as the lines between the act and reality become blurred.

The comedian’s most honest moments come ‘off mic’ when he removes the thing that masks his true self. But as he comes back ‘on mic’ to deliver his final punchline we are led to question everything that has come before. Was it one long gag all along, leading to the final punchline delivered with a wink or was it a wink with a gut-punch layered, like everything else, in irony and encased in the meta.

Feeling Afraid As If Something Terrible Is Going To Happen is at the Bush Theatre until 23 December

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