Thursday, July 7, 2022

Review: 'Moral Panic' at Riverside Studios, 6 May 2022

Reviewed by David James
Rating: 3 Stars

It's adorable looking back at the 1980s "video nasties". The idea that something like Sam Raimi's The Evil Dead was ever a danger to anyone is absurd. Even so, 1980s tabloids breathlessly assured the public that exposure to Bruce Campbell and a couple of buckets of fake blood would cause irrevocable harm to the nation's morality.

Writer/director Stuart Warwick's Moral Panic takes us inside the British Board of Film Censors on the cusp of its mid-80s transformation into the more cuddly-sounding British Board of Film Classification. 

Our viewpoint is Jack Cooper's Charles Hawthorne, a model of prissy paternalism whose god-given mission as protecting the weak-minded public from blood, boobs, and blasphemy. And as for why they're susceptible while he isn't? Well, he's blessed with a public school education. He knows better.

From minute one we know Hawthorne is heading for a fall. Notions of "obscenity"  weakened throughout the 1980s, with the BBFC slowly relaxing their standards in the face of more liberally-minded areligious audiences who didn't want their horror flicks slashed to ribbons.

Our future is personified by a young new censor Veronica Nardelli, whose permissive nature towards censorship runs counter to everything Hawthorne holds dear. But when it suddenly seems she might leapfrog over him into a promotion he covets something must be done...

Jack Cooper as Charles Hawthorne

I won't go further into what actually happens as there are twists in the tale that shouldn't be spoiled, but this hour-long single-hander wraps up with a decently dark punchline that leaves us on a high note.

The most obviously praiseworthy element is Cooper's performance, which is underlined by a fastidiously groomed moustache making him look more like hes from the 1940s than the 1980s. Hawthorne is all tightly coiled pride and nervy energy, obsessed with maintaining cold emotional detachment despite his true thoughts written all over his face.

He's also great when briefly playing other characters as and when they're needed in scenes. By necessity the other characters are broad caricatures, though there's an argument that we're seeing them through his character's unpleasant mental filter. 

But though I enjoyed Moral Panic I found myself wishing it'd connected the dots between now and then. The ebb and flow of permissiveness versus censoriousness over the decades is very politically relevant - with the BBC posting articles wondering whether Mary Whitehouse "was ahead of her time".

Moral Panic skirts the edge of this conversation but ultimately shies away from it, making a beeline towards allegory rather than revealing its political hand. For example, I'd be interested to know whether the playwright considered Charles an evolutionary precursor to "cancel culture" or if he'd trace a line from his unearned chauvinist confidence to modern right-wing commentators.

And also - and this is simply speaking as a horror fan - in a play about dark doings that references the gooiest of splatter movies I'd have liked to have seen a bit of the red stuff on stage. But hey, maybe that bloodlust is proof that video nasties really did warp our minds?

Moral Panic runs until 10 July at Riverside Studios in Hammersmith. Tickets here.

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