Review: Talk Radio (Old Red Lion Theatre)

Eric Bogosian’s script is given a timely revival at the Old Red Lion

The media has been taking a lot of flak recently, with integrities questioned and the fake news labels thrown about with reckless abandon. Eric Bogosian's Pulitzer Prize-nominated radio station-set Talk Radio, may be celebrating its 30th anniversary this year, but has never felt so timely.

The play revolves around late-night radio shock-jock Barry Champlain, a boozing, smoking hippie-styled entertainer with a wit as sharp as it is cutting. Champlain’s two hour segment brings members of the Cleveland public onto the show to (literally) air their grievances. We hear, played out over the station’s speakers, a carousel of anti-semites, panda-lovers, drug addicts, neo-Nazis, alongside some slightly more savoury figures. Each is carefully vetted for their shock factor by the show’s producer, and cut off when they’re boring. The format is wildly successful, and on the verge of going national.

It’s all startlingly pertinent. Champlain’s show feels like the predecessor to the likes of InfoWars, where the news is scrutinised and the media derided. The underlying commentary about our desire to hear shocking material is also reminiscent of Dan Gilroy’s Nightcrawler. On Talk Radio truth is a fiction, and the best fictions are the most shocking. As Champlain points out, listeners don’t care about third world countries or transgender operations, they want to hear the murky depravities of their fellows.

It’s a sad, immoral world, but we lap it up. As Matthew Jure notes in his programme notes, those appearing on the show are the parents to modern Twitter trolls. The listeners are masochists, but so too are we, as a theatre-going audience, laughing and absorbing the moral depravities of Bogosian’s characters. It's modern social hedonism, fuelled by our 'morbid curiosity'.

The most striking thing coming into the Old Red Lion is just how meticulous designer Max Dorey has been with his hyperrealistic set. The space is transformed into the cross section of an '80s radio studio, replete with sound booth, classic tapes, records – a 'Regan/Bush' flyer is pinned on the wall. It's all coated in a pasty pink-turned-beige colour – imagine Partridge’s Mid-Morning-Matters, desaturated.

The play is all held together by a solid performance from Jure’s Champlain, prowling around his radio booth like some carnivorous greasy-haired animal trapped in a zoo pen, us the spectators staring through the glass. Director Sean Turner deftly avoids this becoming a static run of a radio show, instead presenting a frenetic whirligig of tension and anxiety. The supporting cast also hold up well, especially Radio One DJ Cel Spellman (a natural behind the microphone) as an anarchic and disillusioned youngster who inadvertently presents Champlain with the moral consequences of his act.

The show does lose momentum at the beginning of the second act, where more mundane talk-show contributors drag on, and sporadic monologues from supporting characters (breaking the realism for the sake of narrative exposition), seem more of a distraction.

But the thesis itself holds up well, and Bogosian knows how to make the dialogue sting. In a time when mainstream media (on both sides of the Atlantic) is continually mired in controversy (a certain former LBC host and Daily Mail columnist springs to mind), being shown where such attitudes may have been born is certainly an enthralling experience.

Talk Radio runs at the Old Red Lion until 23 September.