Friday, September 1, 2017

Review: 'Talk Radio' at the Old Red Lion, 31st August 2017

Talk Radio reviewed by David James

Rating: 4 Stars

"When you gaze long into the abyss. The abyss gazes also into you." This is Barry Champlain's life in a nutshell. Fuelled by nicotine, cocaine and whiskey, he's a late night talk radio host who dishes out constant verbal pummellings to his listeners. First, they're ridiculed, then they're lectured, and finally a slap on a big red 'end call' button consigns them back to the anonymity from whence they came.

Champlain's callers either hate or worship him, running the gamut from Nazis that accuse him of being part of a global Zionist conspiracy funded by Israel to the batty old ladies who just want to talk about their pets. Gradually we understand his callers as a kind of hydra, each caller a different head on a Reagan-era gestalt, bristling with racism, sexism, paranoia, mental illness, perversion and masochism. 

Each night he wrestles this beast, his unbridled fury bolstering his listening figures as the public tunes in to hear what the hell the wild man of radio is going say next. They know him as a disembodied voice, we in the audience see him as something more feral - a wolf in a zoo pacing a soundproofed cage, his eyes gradually hollowing out as he slowly comprehends the barbarity and banality of the general public.

Eric Bogosian's Talk Radio is now 30 years old, and this revival is set to the background of a completely transformed media landscape. American Talk Radio is now the stomping ground of grumpy old conservatives like Rush Limbaugh, with the real pulse of society now throbbing away on Twitter where each person makes their own contribution to the global consciousness, 140 characters at a time. 

Viewing Champlain through a contemporary lens leads to some uncomfortable conclusions. Back in the 80s, the shock jock was kicking back against a sanitised mass media that embodied Nancy Reagan's good old fashioned American values. This world is now dead, sacrificed in the name of the self-worship and narcissism that has reached its zenith in President Donald J. Trump. It's now easy to see Champlain's shock jock as a harbinger of Trump himself. It's sad, but all-too-easy to imagine Champlain approaching his sixties with a red MAGA cap firmly jammed down upon his now thinning head.

Talk Radio almost entirely relies on the talents of whoever's playing Champlain and Matthew Jure more than delivers. He's scarily committed to the role, embodying the character as much with his furious ranting as when he's frustratedly searching for a cigarette in the studio. Frankly, it's nice to see an actor come at a role as hard as Jure does here, playing him without a trace of irony, parody or satire. When the most unconvincing part of the performance is a dodgy wig, you're doing something right.

Bolstering all this is one of the finest sets I've seen all year, courtesy of Max Dorey (whose work I've admired in many prior productions). It's an exhaustively detailed recreation of a period era radio set, everything from the analogue broadcasting equipment right through to the Reagan/Bush bumper stickers at the rear of the stage and the Cleveland Indians 'Chief Wahoo' sticker on the wall of the studio. Even if the play weren't much cop, audiences would probably get their money's worth poring over the exquisite care with which this place has been constructed.

Perhaps the only real downside is a lack of narrative propulsion. Bogosian teases us with promises of melodrama, before quickly snatching it away and poking fun at our naivety for believing in it. Even the overarching plot that tonight is Champlain's one shot at national syndication eventually sputters out and is largely forgotten. 

What we're left with are a man and a microphone, and when this man is as compellingly written and expertly performed, that's all you need.

Talk Radio is at the Old Red Lion until 23rd September. Tickets and details here.

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