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Sami in Paradise

Audrey review: Belvoir’s second crack at this Nikolai Erdman story and complete success continues to elude the company.

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Company: Belvoir
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Sami in Paradise

Date: 9 Apr 2018

Like George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life, Sami has come to the conclusion that he would be better off dead.

Here though, in a migrant camp somewhere in southern Europe, there’s no guardian angel to show him what the world would become without him.

Quite the opposite, in fact. Sami is surrounded by people who can’t wait to see him boxed and buried.

Adapted from the Russian writer Nikolai Erdman’s 1928 play The Suicide, this production moves the story from the Soviet era steppes to the modern day shores of the Mediterranean, where Sami (played by Yalin Ozucelik), his wife Maria (Victoria Haralabidou) and mother-in-law Fima (Paula Arundell) have been mouldering for the last seven years, living in a tent made of UN blankets.

After his dreams of funding a move to Germany on the proceeds of his tuba playing comes to nought, Sami hits rock bottom.

He borrows a revolver.

Maria is desperate to find him before he shoots himself. But there are others in the camp who see Sami’s suicide as something of a gift; the perfect little media storm to carry a message to the world and keep the aid dollars flowing.

This is Belvoir’s second crack at Erdman’s story (Simon Stone directed a less ambitious version of the play in 2010 in the Downstairs Theatre) and complete success continues to elude the company, though this version does a much better job in making Erdman’s story seem meaningful.

Much about the production seems like a harking back to Flack’s rehearsal room staging of Gorky’s tragicomic Summerfolk in 2009. Despite only a few people actually seeing it, it’s a production he rightly feels proud of and, with the weight of running a company on his shoulders these days, a little nostalgic for, perhaps.

Here, of course, the DIY freedoms he experienced in making Summerfolk has to be faked to a large extent.

Sami begins as a Brechtian exercise with work lights (fitfully powered by a generator), a clothes line strung across the stage, and Hazem Shammas (who plays a poet called Hazem) calling the shots. Everything on the stage (a Dale Ferguson design) looks to have been yanked from storage, borrowed from the green room or picked up from the nature strip.

That conceit slips away quite quickly, however, and the play takes on a more conventional farce form populated by quick-change characters in scenes involving a great deal of gesticulating, running around and shouting.

Flack has a fine ensemble of actors at his disposal who flesh out some sketchy parts and even sketchier passages of stage business with gusto, with Ozucelik again demonstrating why he’s one of the best comic actors in the country.

Charlie Garber grabs the second biggest slice of the spotlight as the head of a beleaguered aid agency responsible for, among other things, World Toilet Day.

Fayssal Bazzi is very funny as camp fixer and philanderer Abu Walid.

Paula Arundell impresses in the contrasting roles of Sami’s mother-in-law and Fairuz, a woman so passionate she can boil water with her eyes.

Nancy Denis romps away with the role of a tubby refugee-turned-security guard.

Arky Michael’s talents are largely wasted in the underwritten role of a priest.

Mahan Ghobadi (percussion) and Hamed Sadeghi (strings) provide lively accompaniment and incidental music from the sidelines.

Sami in Paradise’s satirical targets are as big as barn doors and it manages to hit most of them in the space of its two and a half hours.

What it doesn’t do is connect Sami’s desperate situation to the less-than hilarious reality of the 65 million displaced people on this planet.

The expected and necessary sting to our consciences never arrives.

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