“The Comeuppance” at Almeida Theatre

Neil Dowden in north London
April 17 2024

Branden Jacobs-Jenkins has established himself as one of the leading young American dramatists with a string of critically lauded plays satirizing issues around heritage, identity, and race – several of which have also been staged successfully in London. An Octoroon and Appropriate (which shared the 2014 Obie Award for Best New American Play) have been seen at the Orange Tree/National Theatre and Donmar Warehouse, respectively, while Gloria (shortlisted for the Pulitzer Prize) was produced at Hampstead Theatre. Now The Comeuppance, which premiered in New York last year, arrives at the Almeida Theatre, again directed by Eric Ting.


Ferdinand Kingsley and Yolanda Kettle.
Photo credit: Marc Brenner.


The set-up sounds like a millennial update of the 1983 film The Big Chill about a reunion of baby-boomers, with a group of high-school friends all meeting up for the first time for 20 years in 2022. But though The Comeuppance also mixes tragedy with comedy as old tensions resurface within their sexual relationships and we find out about some of the life-changing experiences they have had, Jacobs-Jenkins takes a different approach. For in this play the figure of Death has an active presence, inhabiting the bodies of each character in turn and speaking directly to the audience as a disarmingly amiable narrator.

The friends gather at Ursula’s suburban house in Washington, DC, for a “pre-party” before the official school event. Now based in Berlin, Emilio is a successful artist known for his “sound sculptures” who is visiting the States for an exhibition of his work in New York – but though he has recently become a father for the first time his domestic life is far from settled. Caitlin is married to a Trump supporter whom she doesn’t love. Kristina, an overworked US Navy anaesthetist with five kids and a drink problem, unexpectedly brings her cousin Paco (who wasn’t part of their school gang they called MERG – multi-ethnic reject group) who has suffered from PTSD since fighting in the Iraq War. Meanwhile, Simon has phoned to say he won’t be coming, without giving a reason – and Ursula, who has lost sight in one eye due to diabetes, doesn’t want to go on to the school in the hired limousine.

It becomes clear that as well as having their own personal ups and downs, as part of Generation Y the friends’ lives and attitudes have been shaped by the two decades bookended by the traumatic events of 9/11 and the Covid pandemic (while other disasters such as the Columbine high school massacre of 1999, police killings of black people, and January 6 storming of the Capitol are also mentioned). Now on the cusp of early middle age, none of their lives have turned out as they had hoped. As they laugh and quarrel together familiarly, they take stock of who/where they are with memories of adolescence mixing with uncertainty about the future. And death is now no longer the remote possibility of youth but a tangible reality as it is voiced by them all alternately, with a chilling forecast that one will die soon.


Anthony Welsh as Emilio.
Photo credit: Marc Brenner.


Jacobs-Jenkins has convincingly created a group of old friends who know how to press each other’s buttons – though now adults pushing 40 they often revert to the games and jokes, as well as resentments and insecurities, of their teenage years as the booze and pot removes restraints. However, as a state-of-the nation play reflecting the anxieties of a certain age group in the US, The Comeuppance seems a tad elusive – though maybe that’s just a cultural gap. And it’s not clear what “comeuppance” refers to – is it a society driven by self-destruction, or perhaps death itself?

Ting’s production is very watchable, with plenty of laughs amidst the gloom. Arnulfo Maldonado’s set is mainly taken up by a detailed re-creation of a front porch where the group hang out (though we can glimpse the house interior through the swing door), complete with stone steps, wooden railings, hammock, and fairy lights, as well as the fluttering Stars and Stripes suggesting a wider context. The moments when each character is possessed by Death are strikingly done, with blue spotlighting from Natasha Chivers and echoing sound from Emma Laxton distorting the actors’ normal voices, while some magic and visual effects by Skylar Fox and William Houstoun add a transient spooky aspect to proceedings.

The cast is excellent. Wearing an eyepatch and worried that her possessions will be moved where she can’t find them, Tamara Lawrance’s quietly sympathetic Ursula still seems to see things more clearly than her companions. Anthony Welsh’s Emilio, on the other hand, is all mixed up, provoking the others with his barbed comments and with unresolved feelings for Yolanda Kettle’s Caitlin, who when young had had an abusive relationship with Paco to whom she is still attracted. Katie Leung’s Kristina may have a high-flying career, but she is in danger of becoming an alcoholic. And Ferdinand Kingsley doubles as the aggressively erratic Paco prone to fits and the voice of Simon who remains mysteriously unseen.