Reviewed by Nathan Lentern
Director: Jonathan Biggins
Designer: Mark Thompson
Lighting Designer: Trent Suidgeest
Composer & Sound Designer: Steve Francis
Photo: James Green
John Behan, (John Waters) a talkback radio star – more in the mould of a John Laws than an Alan Jones – is in true form mid program when two police officers inform his producers that they are there to arrest him. Behan has prejudiced an ongoing court trial, involving sexual assault, and is to be charged with contempt of court. An indignant Behan responds by locking himself in his studio, manually overriding the stations controls and assuming the posture of the martyr as he broadcasts himself across the airwaves.
As Behan’s crusade becomes the story of the day, we observe the internal debates within the ABC and the Daily Telegraph as to how best to cover the story. At the ABC, grumpy veteran Taffy (Peter Kowitz), on his last day before retirement, wants to do some old fashioned investigative journalism. He believes there’s more than meets the eye to this story and alleges a conspiracy between Behan and the NSW government. His younger and more urbane protégé Dani (Paige Gardener) won’t have a bar of it. She’s more interested in live blogging and is generally swept up in the excitement of the day.
At the Telegraph the newly appointed acting editor Julie Scott (Hannah Waterman) is determined to prove she can do the job as well as any bloke. She turns a blind eye to the evidence against Behan, instead hones in on the “sex offender walks free” angle.
As the play progresses it takes on a darker and more proselytising tale of corruption and power winning out over integrity. There are a couple of moments with real pathos, and the ultimate climax cuts through, but much of the lecturing about declining media standards was tedious.
Talk is at its best as a comedy. Author Jonathan Biggins is a notable impressionist in his own right and his mastery of language is on full display in the dialogue of Behan. The long hours Biggins must have spent listening to Laws, Jones, Hinch et al, marvelling at the curious musical delivery of their bluster is clear. Biggins has captured the style and cadence to a tee, and with the urbane and mellifluous voice of John Waters delivering them the parody is a delight.
His off-air banter with staff is probably the highlight of the performance and had a certain ring of truth to it. Watching Behan trade affectionate barbs with a queer millennial producer (Kenneth Morelada) was side splittingly funny. It was a pity we didn’t get to see more of the young producer who disappeared off to TAFE just as the drama began unfolding.
The set design by Mark Thompson is a genius three compartmental structure that allows us to shift from scene to scene instantaneously with the mere use of a spotlight. It’s a wonderful design and technique that lends a high paced energy to the production, alas the plot isn’t always able to do justice to its nimble, agile and innovative set design.
Life in the two newsrooms is decidedly less fun than the radio studio. The Telegraph gang is often guilty of just rehashing the cynicism of the Talkback studio with none of the flair of Behan or the cheek of the young producer. They aren’t entirely pointless, but perhaps it was unwise for the characters to discuss redundancies given their impact on the overall performance. There are meaningful subplots built into the Telegraph newsroom, one about Scott’s need to prove herself as the first female editor of the Telegraph. Another is about the commercial pressures of print journalism. But they are handled briefly and clumsily. They are of secondary importance to the overarching plot about Behan and consequently feel like they’ve been shoehorned in.
The ABC offers us a bit more by way of drama, but only a bit. Taffy is frustrated with his protégé’s approach to journalism and with good reason, but they dance the same pas de deux over and over again with no variation. It’s entertaining for a while, and upsetting when a broken Taffy leaves the newsroom for the last time, but there’s too much rinse-and-repeat in the middle.
Kowitz does a credible job in creating a likeable and sympathetic character but we aren’t left heartbroken by his despair. We understand his anguish but we don’t feel it. Dani should infuriate us in the same way she infuriates Taffy but she just isn’t interesting enough. Plenty of funny lines in these clashes between an idealistic luddite and a jaded neophyte fail to get the response because Gardener is just so banal. She’s neither an airhead nor a diva so her numerous shortcomings present as incongruous.
Sadly every scene seems to require at least one character clumsily drawn and completely over the top. An ABC executive with a pony tail and a ridiculous Yes Minister poshness was painful. So too was a grimy Telegraph journalist who was presumably there to represent the worst in tabloid journalism but merely represented the worst in crude characterisation. The very worst though was the commercial radio station manager whose crass opportunism was laboured and unconvincing.
Strong performances by Valerie Bader as Behan’s executive producer and Hannah Waterman as Julie Scott, plus the tour de force from Waters redeem the production somewhat, but it’s not enough.
Talk can be very funny in parts and touching in others, but it is for the most part a predictable, two dimensional miss.