Thursday, June 1, 2017

Talk - Sydney Theatre Company

One day left before retirement - Peter Konitz as Taffy Campbell (credit David James McCarthy)

Review by John Lombard

Alan Jones-esque shock jock John Behan (John Waters) derails the trial of an accused paedophile when he broadcasts the defendant's prejudicial prior record.  The judge is forced to declare a mistrial, and the police show up at Behan's studio to arrest him for contempt of court.

Rather than meekly going with the officers, Behan seals himself in his studio and continues to broadcast.  He reveals the address of the accused, and before long a violent mob tries to deliver its own rough justice.

This is crunchy, timely material: just this year Yahoo7 was raked over the coals for publishing information not before the jury, and there is a lively debate over whether prior criminal history should be raised in trials.

Add to that mix an amoral radio journalist skirting the law, and this should be the recipe for thrilling, engrossing political drama.

Talk is hampered however by a persistently jokey tone and cartoonish characters.  The script by Wharf Revue writer Jonathan Biggins is flabby, grabbing every low-hanging joke (Uber and Tinder get obligatory mentions) but failing to realise the potential of its own rich scenario.

It also cuts corners to establish its central conceit: the police are hilariously impotent, unable to find any means of stopping Behan beyond asking nicely.  One sequence where Began teases opening his door for a pretty female officer is typical: the scene is funny, but it obeys a cartoon logic that is at odds with the horror of Behan abusing his power to take the law into his own hands.

The jokes do land - we not only see Behan's studio and its colourful but slightly redundant staff, but the reaction in the offices of both the ABC and the Daily Telegraph.  These two opposite poles of journalism are fertile fields of wry satire, with his sympathetic depiction of the pressures on Telegraph staff is genuinely engrossing.

Behan is the most interesting character - his choices drive the story - but he remains an enigma, from start-to-end only his on-air personality.  There is never any sense that he might be like a cowboy struggling to keep his grip on a bucking bronco.  Even when his trial-by-media leads to tragic consequences, he barely flinches.  Behan comes across as callous, crass and sociopathic, and beyond having to pee in his office we don't see much of his humanity - let alone that he is even in real jeopardy.  If we had felt that Behan was in danger, we might have been able to connect with him.

The play also feels like it ends prematurely, setting up a confrontation between Behan and retiring ABC journalist Taffy Campbell (Peter Kowitz playing an old leftie idealist) that never quite materialises.  Biggins also seems to underestimate how much public outrage Behan's actions would spark - we only hear from the establishment and Behan's ardent fans, not the people who would be horrified that the justice system is now outsourcing to lynch mobs.

Compounding the sense that the play is unfinished, an enormous amount of time is wasted rehashing tired jokes about the emptiness of so-called "new media", with Twitter getting a pounding that would have been more timely back in 2010.  Just when the play should be gearing up for its finale, we fall back into that cul-de-sac so Taffy can lecture the audience on dying journalistic values.

Biggins here is directing his own work, and his gift for comedy realises that aspect of the play, but another director could have excised a lot of extraneous material - this is a play where many of the characters could be cut, and what it would lose in gags it would gain in focus and power.

Talk's central idea is a strong one, but the play combines farce and moralising with a cheap cynicism about the justice system, setting up a fascinating debate and then ignoring it in favour of sketch comedy.  It entertains, but for all it talks does not say enough.