One of the most popular theatre franchises currently is Mischief Theatre’s The Play That Goes Wrong and its subsequent follow ups; indeed it has just been granted its own TV series. Devotees will know that they feature the Cornley Drama Society’s shambolic theatre productions, where actors with grandiose ideas about their own abilities massacre their lines and leave unintentional pauses, the set disintegrates around them, the costumes and props routinely misbehave and the stage crew are about as ineffective as they can be. Many of the ideas reinforce the “set text” on this – Michael Green’s seminal work The Art of Coarse Acting. In my younger days this was touted as the “must read” if only so that the situations described therein might be avoided.
Last week I saw a couple of amateur productions the first of which seemed to set out to prove that aspects of the above were works of fact rather than humorous fiction and the other which so far transcended its amateur status that it would not have been out of place in a professional theatre. Over the first I prefer to draw a discreet veil, especially as, to be fair, the drama society in question were dealing with a particularly difficult situation. However, even bearing that in mind, had I been reviewing the performance I should have little positive to say other than to commend them for their enthusiasm in tackling something which seemed simple on the surface but was in fact far from it.
Fortunately my second amateur performance was an altogether different affair and I have little hesitation in writing about it. Indeed here’s my full review:
It’s good to see Tower Theatre being bang on trend! Well over half of the shows I have seen in 2019 so far have run straight through and dispensed with an interval. Tower’s latest production, Talk Radio by Eric Bogosian, is another in this vein. Unlike on some previous occasions, however, the lack of an interval is fully justified for this is a taut and relentless piece where it would not do to break the audience’s concentration and involvement as events are, more or less, played out in real time.
The central character – and what a central character – is late 1980’s radio station WTLK-Cleveland’s top “shock jock” Barry Champlain. He is a complex man with a degree of loathing for his co-workers that is only surpassed by the degree of loathing he has for the people who call up his show in order to complain, whine, ask moronic questions (“Why don’t they make more of the I Love Lucy Show?”), issue bigoted remarks and threaten both Barry and themselves with acts of violence. Topping even this, though, is his sense of self-loathing. From the get go Barry is clearly on a mission to see how far he can push his audience and his bosses, repeatedly pressing the self-destruct button which is as metaphorically present as the caller reject button on his desk. He belittles the sponsors who are paying his wages and behaves with a reckless lack of caution when he discovers that the show is about to make him nationally syndicated and he will probably become a household name across America. His personal relationships are also shot to pieces as he cannot commit and his social life style is characterised by excessive smoking and drinking. As sometime girlfriend Linda says: “Barry Champlain is a nice place to visit but I wouldn’t want to live there”.
He is clearly a hopeless case, albeit a highly successful one, but we, the theatre audience, gradually become as mesmerised by his persona as do his radio listeners. In a performance of heroic dimensions, Simon Vaughan commanded the stage. Here was a truly inspired and virtually faultless performance which brought the monstrous nature of Barry Champlain into full and vibrant life. Vaughan made him into a misguided but committed figure at odds with the world but full of energy as he entertained both his listeners and us; the dialogue with the unseen callers was particularly deftly handled.
Clearly the dominant figure was the talk show host himself but this central performance was very ably supported by a good ensemble cast. On one side of the stage we could see through into the control room where the hapless Stu (Luke Owen) provided Barry with technical support and fielded and lined up the callers. On the other was the production office where station manager Dan (Leon Chambers) and producer Linda (Samantha Psyk) gathered to monitor proceedings. Linda is also having an on-off (more off than on) relationship with Barry. Necessarily a lot of the action in these two areas was in dumb show but this was expertly done and added to the reality of a busy radio station. All three characters also had telling moments where they separately delivered well- constructed and effectively paced monologues about their dealings with the maverick central figure. There was also a very successful scene featuring Leon Zedlmayer as manic teenage Champlain devotee, Kent. His shambolic gangling figure contrasted nicely with the laid back Barry and produced an interesting dynamic as one of Barry’s listeners is finally seen in the flesh.
The rest of the callers were, of course, unseen though stingingly chastised by Barry as “a bunch of yellow-bellied, spineless, bigoted, quivering, drunken, insomniac, paranoid, disgusting, perverted, voyeuristic, little obscene phone callers. “ Now that’s what I call a review! Seriously though, a shower of praise is due to the voice talents of this group backstage (some of the above mentioned plus Lucy Moss, Yasir Senna, Stephen Brasher and Katherine Kennet). I can honestly say I thought there were actually more of them so diverse and fascinating were their contributions; maybe a future in voice-over work beckons!
Technically the show ran like clockwork. Lighting by Alan Wilkinson was great and the sound design (which must have been a nightmare to organise) by Laurence Tuerk and Leon Chambers was bang on – a word of praise too for Kaushal Ginige’s operation of the latter with every cue timed to perfection. Costuming by Lynda Twidale hit all the right notes and although it’s tempting to think that little has changed clothes-wise since the late 80s there were sufficient indications that this is where (or rather, when) we were. Philip Ley’s direction of the piece was pacy and punchy; even more impressive was his set design. This is the first time I have seen a fully unchanging realistic set used in the new auditorium and it was a thing of joy. Streamlined, solid, full of telling little details – it really showed what could be achieved in the new space. Congratulations Mr Ley for setting the bar so high for future Tower designers!
Although I can’t say I enjoyed all the writing there was definitely sufficient to keep me interested for the time span. Ultimately the audience is left to make up its own mind as to what may happen to Barry on a personal and a professional level. Even as he swept out of the studio the next presenter and assistant were taking up position to continue where he had finished and we were left to reflect on the intense experience we had sat through and the continuing strengths demonstrated by Tower’s inaugural year in its new home. I only wish I were writing this review in time to urge you to go and see the show – just like Barry it was a rating’s winner.
So as you can gather it’s not all about reduced standards and limited expectations in amateur land. It’s actually about people who have a desire (the root derivation of the word amateur is “to love”) to emulate their professional colleagues and make exceptional theatre that audiences can enjoy – just without financial remuneration. Just remember that when you’re watching the newly commissioned Goes Wrong Show when it hits the BBC in the near future.