Sunday, 10 September 2017

Fake views? Talk Radio, Old Red Lion Theatre

In a world in which contradiction and aggressive inconsistency appears to be all you need to be a success, Eric Bogosian’s 1980s play gets its UK premier to help explain how this came to be.

In a recent interview, the writer and performer nailed the trick in one line: “…people get confused about what’s real and what isn’t when you have this pundit who’s pushing all kinds of opinions and jerking us around.” But… and it is indeed a huge "but", we get the thought-leaders we deserve or, more accurately the thought reflectors. When given the chance to speak our minds and to use “marvellous technology” to freely express in a constructive way, we waste it; pre-occupied with our fears and actively seeking negative reinforcement and comfort-hate.

In the eighties, it was talk radio and now, our thoughts magnified a thousand times by social media, we fall into the same trap of allowing those we gift into positions of power, the liberty of telling us what we think. As it is with President Donald Trump so it was with Barry Champlain, the shock-jock at the centre of the play and Oliver Stone’s dark-edged film version. But Barry is smarter and more self-aware than Trump, he knows his limitations and, in the final analysis, he also has an honesty unavoidably lurking behind his quick wit… but has he the moral courage to take responsibility for the impact he’s having?

Matthew Jure and Andy Secombe
Director Sean Turner promised that “…the production will be anarchic and raucous – once we put our foot on the pedal it will not stop…” and it doesn’t from the first rapier thrust of Matthew Jure’s Barry to the last, there’s no let-up.

Sean and designer Max Dorey have made the most of the Old Red Lion’s space and the audience are placed in the heart of a radio station set that has Barry behind Perspex glass with his assistants and station manager outside. It reinforces Barry’s isolation as well as his connection with the twilight world of callers through his show Night Talk. Barry’s long-standing producer Stu (George Turvey) and his long-suffering love interest Linda (Molly Myfanwy McNerney) filter his calls and feed him through a variety of callers from twee cat-lovers to crypto-fascists, harmless cranks to sinister ill-wishers.

To them all Barry issues the same challenge: what is it exactly you want to say? How are you going to use the time to make a genuine point?

George Turvey
Barry is rude, confrontational and short-tempered. His local show is a success and station boss Dan (Andy Secombe) has grabbed him the opportunity of nationwide exposure… the big stations are listening in and tonight’s show must go well. Yet Barry isn’t happy with this… he’s not been consulted and what’s more, whatever is troubling him about the direction of his show is about to be magnified on across every state.

Barry is conflicted and very uncomfortable with the role he has created for himself. During one of the monologues from his colleagues direct to the audience, Dan reveals that Barry’s background as a Vietnam vet with hippy credentials and a Chicago University PhD is a fabrication and we’re surprised he allowed this especially given Stu’s recollections of his uncompromising pranks at their first radio station: locking themselves in playing Let it Bleed 23 times over for effect (at least it wasn’t Goats Head Soup…).

These face-to-face break aways are very effective in themselves and I found myself nodding when Stu asked if we remembered Jethro Tull…

Molly Myfanwy McNerney
Linda’s is the most revelatory though as she talks about her difficulty in breaking through Barry’s exo-skeleton of hard talk… even when asleep he is troubled: he may not have been in ‘Nam but he’s living in difficulty.
The callers are relentless and Barry knows them all too well, dismissing quickly those who are just going to say the same old thing. One caller gives him pause, a young man called Kent (Ceallach Spellman) who sounds stoned and distressed as he talks about his girlfriend being unconscious: has she OD’d? The Police call in concerned and Dan makes him hear Kent out even though Barry is convinced he’s a fraud.

There’s also another caller far more menacing in tone who challenges Barry more directly… he even sends him a parcel claiming it contains a bomb. But Barry knows his callers, he knows they’re sadder than him, even this one?

As the Jack Daniels bottle gets drained and Barry cuts a line, he gets more strung out rejecting both Linda and Stu’s help. His night is reaching crisis point when he invites Kent into his recording booth and you wonder how much longer he can deal with his own self-deceptions in the face of an audience “mesmerised” by their own fear: they can’t move on, they can only call in and they just want to him to confirm its alright to go down without a fight.

There are no easy answers and no clear conclusion as in the film...

Ceallach Spellman
Matthew Jure gives a performance that leaves everything out on the track, with Barry’s confliction given exhausted, physical expression over the course of the two-hour running time. He is almost constantly talking, baiting his audience and himself as they fail to meet expectations he clearly can’t reach himself… Perhaps we all need to move on together?

Compelling, challenging and highly entertaining, Talk Radio is very “hot” media indeed and I guarantee you will “lean forward” as we media types always say. If you’re not affected by this play, you’ve not really been paying attention and, with Matthew’s Barry in the room, that’s just not going to happen.

Talk Radio plays at the Old Red Lion Theatre, 418 St John Street, London until Saturday 23rd August and if you want to understand the enduring truths about misdirection, ego and corrupting power *and* be entertained, you shouldn't miss it!

Ithankyou Theatre rating: ****

All photographs courtesy of Cameron Harle.

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