The Comeuppance at the Almeida review: death stalks a school reunion in this dark but laugh-aloud drama

From left, Yolanda Kettle, Tamara Lawrance, Katie Leung and Anthony Welsh (Marc Brenner)
From left, Yolanda Kettle, Tamara Lawrance, Katie Leung and Anthony Welsh (Marc Brenner)

“There are some things one remembers even though they may never have happened.” That telling line comes from Harold Pinter’s 1971 play Old Times, one of dozens of dramas – like The Big Chill and Romy and Michelle’s High School Reunion – built around friends gathering and having the complicated past cannon back into the present.

But none of those were stalked by a character representing death. That’s the twist revealed at the top of Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’s new play The Comeuppance.

The presentation of wry, dry death, calmly embodied by each of the characters is the only non-naturalistic element of Eric Ting’s warm, carefully paced production, designed by Arnulfo Maldonado, which premiered last year at New York’s Signature Theater. The difference here being that it’s now cast with a superbly meshed quintet of British actors.

Seizing every opportunity with relish, all five are wholly convincing as a group of old friends meeting for the 20th anniversary of leaving their Washington high school. Back then, given their different ethnicities, they consciously styled themselves as MERG(E) – multi-ethnic reject group – their differences making them allies. But as with almost every reunion, initial delight at seeing one another after so long is tempered by doubts and the uncovering of secrets and lies – to each other and themselves.

Disaffected Emilio (combative Anthony Welsh) sees himself as the ringleader. He believes he has a perspective his erstwhile friends don't. But the longer the pre-reunion chat continues on the front porch of Ursula (beautifully patient Tamara Lawrance) the more sentimental pleasures give way to scores being settled.

Tamara Lawrance and Anthony Welsh in The Comeuppance (Marc Brenner)
Tamara Lawrance and Anthony Welsh in The Comeuppance (Marc Brenner)

Katie Leung has fun with fraught, uptight Kristina and, by never patronising her character, Yolanda Kettle is quietly triumphant as a perfectly played blonde queen of denial.

Alongside the darkness lurking in the unacknowledged past, brought in by the late arrival of the fifth member of the group, Paco (smooth and strong Ferdinand Kingsley), Jacobs-Jenkins finds laugh-aloud humour, not least from misunderstood sexualities.

But doubts gradually surface about the structure. In place of engaging subtext, there’s merely withheld information dragged into the open at convenient moments like in an awkward thriller.

The chief difficulty is the play’s evenhandedness. Because everyone has a balanced backstory, the play lacks focus and tension evaporates because, for all the crackle of the dialogue, too much is discussed and too little is dramatised. That’s particularly true of self-conscious references to outside events they lived through from the Columbine shooting to the September 11 attacks.

Despite occasional extreme reactions to truthtelling, characters change too little to ultimately make us care. And while the presence of death adds intellectual perspective, only in the final coda does it do anything to propel real drama.

Almeida Theatre, to May 18;