The Comeuppance review – Almeida Theatre, London ★★★☆☆

Photo: Marc Brenner

The big themes of modern America find themselves name-checked, if not ruminated on in Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’s new play, The Comeuppance, which makes its UK premiere at the Almeida Theatre following an off-Broadway run at the Signature Theatre last year. Covid, lockdowns, the January 6 attack on Capitol Hill, online radicalisation, far-right conspiracies, school shootings, Roe v Wade, 9/11, Iraq and Afghanistan are all touched on in passing, each mention coming as if with a knowing wink and nod from Jacobs-Jenkins. The intention is clear: we’re aiming for state-of-the-nation stuff here… but mostly it’s about death, memory and ageing. Sort of.

It’s autumn 2022 and ahead of their twentieth-anniversary high school reunion a group of former students who had banded together at school, calling themselves MERG(e) – Multi-Ethnic Reject Group (‘it’s a soft g’) – are having pre-drinks at Ursula’s (Tamara Lawrance) house. United by their differences in high school, they find their main similarity twenty years on is their sense of failure, only now that commonality divides rather than unifies them.

Photo: Marc Brenner

The tension is compounded by an uninvited guest, Paco (Ferdinand Kingsley), Caitlin’s (Yolanda Kettle) troubled and problematic ex-boyfriend. Brought along by his cousin Kristina (Katie Leung), he immediately clashes heads with Emilio (Anthony Walsh) and opens old wounds with Caitlin. The twist in all this, revealed at the play’s outset, is that there is another uninvited visitor at the party: Death, who embodies each character in turn for a fourth-wall-breaking conversation with the audience.

We hear about more action than we see. What they all did twenty years ago, what someone did in the Middle East, what someone else did in Berlin, what another did during Covid and what someone’s husband didn’t do during January 6 (they didn’t actually storm the Capitol Building, OK). Eric Ting, who directed the US production with a different cast, finds little drama as the characters sit around and talk about the past without moving the narrative firmly in any particular direction, the stories themselves not strong enough to hold our attention.

Photo: Marc Brenner

Still, there are laughs here, and it is incredibly clever at times, with the physical manifestation of Death shocking the play out of its traditional American family drama form, adding moments of real tension that hold. The main disappointment comes from a pay-off that never comes, with Death’s presence proving to be anti-climactic.

The production is saved, to a degree, by the fine acting on display across the entire cast, and there’s wonderful use of lighting by Natasha Chivers to plunge us into otherworldly moments or to announce the sudden arrival of a limo. Meanwhile, Arnulfo Maldonado’s set, the front porch of Ursuala’s house with the United States flag billowing above it, plonked in the centre of the Almeida stage, is impressive in its ability to seem wholly normal and equally abstract. In the end, though, the prevailing sense as the lights go down is of having been cheated by Death out of a good story.

The Comeuppance is at Almeida Theatre, London until 18 May 2024