“I want you to start telling the truth”
Does Katie Hopkins possess a single ounce of remorse? How does Ann Coulter really feel about the audiences she continually bates? Does Piers Morgan have any self-awareness? Eric Bogosian’s play Talk Radio may date from 1987 but in its dissection of shock jocks and their role in manipulating media and fomenting the rise of the kind of right-wing ideology that has taken hold either side of the Atlantic, it can’t help but ring with resonance today.
The talking head of the day in Sean Turner’s excellent production is the jaded Barry Champlain, a no-holds-barred late-night talk show host who is coming to both revel in the prejudiced depths that his callers sink to and be repulsed by them. An offer to syndicate his Cleveland-area show nationally sets off a long dark night of the soul, where not even the glass walls of his radio booth seem to offer the same sort of protection that they once did.
For it is not just Champlain under the microscope here, it is the callers – Twitter trolls in the making every one – who phone in to for their 5 minutes of fame, whether spouting racist bullshit, boring us with self-involved dramas, making up any old shit to get attention. And Turner’s decision to run interval-free (after experimenting with a break for some performances) pays dividends here, the slow-burn tightening of the screw ultimately spiralling out of control.
Mathew Jure is excellent as the wired Champlain, restlessly energetic but increasingly uncomfortable with what he has wrought on his world, especially once he’s brought face-to-face with its results in the form of teenage ‘fan’ Kent (a convincingly vacuous Cel Spellman). And as his personal relationships with producer/regular shag Linda (Molly McNerney impressing in an underwritten role) and producer/long-time friend Stu (a very blokishly appealing George Turvey) suffer, the hollowness of his rhetoric is exposed.
Max Dorey’s set work is exceptional in capturing all its period-perfect radio station detail (I almost felt nostalgic for cassettes at one point) and is intelligently lit by Jack Weir, using the haunting red light of the ‘on air’ sign. Dan Bottomley’s sound design also immerses us entirely in the studio, suggesting just how seductive being the god-like master of storms of controversy might be. Creatively inspired and intellectually stimulating, there’s much of interest to be found on the radio (whoa oh oh oh).