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Theatre Review The bitter laughs of Marcelo dos Santos

MARY CONWAY applauds a mind-blowing monologue that explores the private  niggling hell of being young

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

FEELING Afraid As If Something Terrible Is Going To Happen — with its exquisite script and immaculate solo performance — feels like a masterclass in stand-up comedy. 

Following an award-winning run at the Edinburgh Festival, this 65-minute monologue features actor Samuel Barnett as our entertainer for the night. As an audience he makes us laugh to order, manipulates us with sudden changes of tone and easy self-mockery, and delivers bombshells of lines you just don’t see coming.

His body language speaks volumes while his voice coos and charms, the occasional wail testifying to a deeper, inner anguish that makes us laugh all the more. 

It’s a light-hearted piece and a pleasant way to spend some time. But there’s more, as predicted by the deliberately jolting title.   

Stand-up comedy often relies on the comedian’s sharing with us weaknesses we can all recognise. But so often these weaknesses spring from a place of lonely misery, opening up for air that private space in all of us that rarely sees the light. It’s this instant connection that makes comedy a palatable way to convey serious truths. And Feeling Afraid is no exception.

The serious truth, our comedian tells us here, is that he is 36 and has never till recently been in a proper relationship. We laugh. When he then tells us that this is all right because he has no fear of dying alone, we laugh even more. We get the picture.

This is a man at the tail end of youth, whose life remains unsorted and for whom death already looms. And, though our performer muddies the water by stopping and starting his routine with funnier and funnier lines, his initial outburst remains, and we feel a private knowledge of him, even as he presses our laughter buttons and vaults from private revelation to measured audience control. 

The underpinning thesis is stark: youth in our time is not a happy place; on the contrary, it’s a private, niggling hell crawling with terrors of self-doubt and fear for the future. Even internet dating, that supposed liberation for all — here concentrating on the gay scene — reeks of disaster when simple desire is swamped by rules and fears and expectations. 

And love … well, where can that fit in, when playing to an audience is all that matters and the private self just fodder for entertainment? What is real and what artifice? What is fulfilling and what delusional? These are questions the comedy explores in forensic detail. 

It’s been a mind-blowing year for writer Marcelo Dos Santos, this monologue at the Bush coinciding with the opening of his first West End play. His skill in character exposition combined with theatrical “keep-you-on-your-toes” mental shifts marks him out as a significant talent. And here he has an audience eating out of his hand. 

Matthew Xia directs impeccably, Elliot Griggs blasts with ingenious lighting shifts and we all leave in good spirits, effectively made to laugh when we might as easily have cried.  But then that’s theatre for you. What power!

Runs until December 23. Box office: (020) 8743-5050, bushtheatre.co.uk.

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