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Review of Talk Radio at the Old Red Lion Theatre

Talk Radio, ORL, George Turvey (courtesy Cameron Harle)
Talk Radio, ORL, George Turvey (courtesy Cameron Harle)

I spent a lot of time in the 1980’s (when Talk Radio is set) in radio and recording studios so when I entered the Old Red Lion Theatre I felt right at home. Max Dorey’s radio studio set was spot on with its half-full cardboard coffee cups, papers scattered all over the place, reel-to-reel and 8-track tape machines and mismatched broken chairs – you could almost smell the staleness in the air.

The hero or maybe that should be the anti-hero of Talk Radio is Barry Champlain who is what is known in America as a “shock jock” – a radio show host whose job is rile his audience into calling up and arguing with the presenter who usually has right wing views. However, the hard drinking cocaine snorting Champlain is more left leaning which gives him a different take on things. Most of the people who call in are lonely losers who have nothing to do late at night but to phone up and whinge and whine about the state of the world and Champlain is quick to cut them off if he doesn’t agree with their views – which is most of the time.

The Pulitzer Prize nominated play written by Eric Bogosian in 1987, takes place over one night at WTALK in Cleveland. Champlain (superbly played by Matthew Jure) deals with the callers by either being rude to them, disagreeing with them or just cutting them off. He’s rude to his producer Linda (Molly McNerney) who he’s having an on-off relationship with, Stu (George Turvey) his put upon engineer and Dan (Andrew Secombe) the station manager who tolerates Champlain as he’s got a large, loyal listenership and is about to go national. Most of the callers are given short-shrift until Kent (Ceallach Spellman) calls claiming that his girlfriend has overdosed and is turning blue which causes everyone to panic but when Kent calls back and says he was just kidding which intrigues
Champlain and he breaks all the rules by inviting Kent down to the station. Kent accepts and even gets to go on air which causes Champlain to reassess his life and his job.

Although Talk Radio is 30 years old (this is the anniversary production which has Bogosian’s blessing), it resonates with today’s politics both in the US and in the UK and there are even mentions of terrorists and floods – you can’t get more current than that. When the play was first performed in London, we didn’t have “shock jocks” but in the intervening years the likes of Nick Ferrari have brought the genre to our radios and we’re more used to the style so Champlain’s aggressive behaviour in Talk Radio is less of a shock than it would have been when it was first produced over here.

But the play isn’t just about Champlain as when he does leave the studio occasionally, we hear about his back-story and his relationships with Linda, Stu and Dan in their monologues where they break the fourth wall and address the audience. We learn that Champlain is a deeply flawed loner that finds relationships very hard – which is probably what makes him such a good radio show presenter.

The piece is superbly structured and the writing sharp and witty. It’s really all about Champlain but we get enough of a flavour of the other characters to keep the interest going. It is a bit of a star vehicle for the actor playing Champlain (originally it was Bogosian himself) but the other four actors get their moment in the sun. All are superb but Ceallach Spellman as Kent is mesmerising as a young version of Champlain and for a few short minutes, overshadows the man himself.

The play is superbly directed by Sean Turner and as well as a big nod towards Max Dorey’s set design, special mention should go to Sound Designer Dan Bottomley. There’s a lot going on sound-wise with broadcast mics, internal mics, telephones, people calling in, commercials being played in the background and Bottomley has got it all working to perfection. It’s incredibly complicated but this is one of the best examples of first-class sound design I’ve heard in a small theatre for a long, long time.

If I had one small criticism it’s the unbalanced running time of the two acts. The first is around 75 minutes and the second 30! I feel it would be better to have run it straight through as the interval as intervals often do, takes some of the tension out of the piece. If the new production of Follies at the National can run 2 hours 20 minutes without an interval, I’m sure the audience could deal with Talk Radio running straight through for 1 hour 45 – and it would be better for it. I hope it’s not one of those intervals taken to sell more drinks in the pub below!

Having said that, this is a wonderful piece of theatre that fits perfectly into the space at the Old Red Lion and deserves to get a big audience between now and September 23rd.

4 stars

Review by Alan Fitter

This Pulitzer Prize-nominated barnstormer of a play, adapted into a major motion picture by Oliver Stone, follows the last of the great ‘shock jocks’, Barry Champlain, on the eve of his outrageous show’s national syndication.

Barry’s show provides a late-night forum for right wing ideology, and he encourages his callers’ extremist behaviour. But Champlain, who sees himself as a God amongst men, is forced to view his own fallibility and mortality in the light of skewed perspectives aired by the down-and-out listeners he has come to despise.


29th August – 23rd September 2017


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