This is a fast paced satire on the hypocrisy of TV writers and executives as they jostle for supremacy in the battle between artistic integrity and populism. In the struggle to succeed they attempt to avoid the dual pitfalls of narcissism and the politically incorrect; the dialogue is sharp and the night I went, the audience tittered in all of the right places. Unfortunately, it spends so much time worrying about how morally bankrupt TV is it becomes the very thing it is trying to avoid; repetitive and only momentarily satisfying, the entertainment equivalent of MSG. By the end I was almost ready to switch on the TV and channel hop for hours, mindlessly searching for something worth watching. I doubt that was its intention.
Signal Theatre Company's aim is to produce revivals of modern comedies, 'to make theatre that is - above all - fun'. It is a desire so laudable that I was almost hopeful as I made my way to the Tristan Bates' snug studio space.
Unfortunately, this production simply isn't funny enough to override the growing sensation that its cynicism and desperation to show what a vacuous world television is simply brings the tedium of that world to the theatre. Getting comic mileage out of poking jibes at TV is hardly new and is, in any case, a pretty easy point to make. Although at times the production shows signs of transcending this and actually getting to grips with the tension between interest and entertainment in television, it gets stuck wallowing in its own mud.
The premise is a promising one. Adam, a good if slightly confused man, has written a successful play and he is invited to meet with Sarah, a harassed TV executive, to discuss how it might be made more 'TV friendly', i.e. dumbed-down and sexed-up. Can Adam really bring himself to make his fortune and reputation on the back of a sitcom in which the central character's disability is held up as the centre of the comedy? Well yes, no, perhaps; he really isn't sure.
The reason this should matter to us is that Adam himself has a disability, and it is his struggle with his own prejudice that provides the potential for this to be a seriously interesting play. While he battles to decide whether he should forego his chance at TV glory, Sarah and Rachel, the hapless temp, tie themselves in knots trying to avoid any reference to his disability, with predictably absurd consequences. The question of where human interest ends and bad taste begins is never resolved.
Although well written, it is difficult to avoid the feeling that Simon Block's dialogue is too self-consciously clever to be genuinely funny. Too often it becomes a tongue-twister, impossible for the actors to speak and the audience to hear without being more impressed by the verbal gymnastics than by its actual meaning. I enjoyed the set; an Ikea showroom, impersonal and disconcertingly pleasant, it is like the world of a Stepford wife, if she happened to be living in the trendy warehouse-cum-office of a vapidly on-trend TV 'creative' team. The giant cartoon TV painted on the wall is an amusing if obvious reminder of the overbearing power of this play's subject. Blank, crouching angrily over the room, it sits like a praying mantis, threatening the characters to within an inch of their sanity.
Christopher Tester gives a good performance as Adam, the playwright struggling against his own prejudices and those of others, bringing some welcome humanity to proceedings. His amusing rehearsal of his Bafta-winning speech is perfectly pitched, but by the time he changes his mind for the final time we've been led around in circles too much to care. Each character makes so many U-turns it's hard to keep up.
Kellie Batchelor manages to bestow Sarah with a hint of integrity without ever implying it will last for long, while Eva Tausig gives a mannered performance as Rachel, where she hits comic notes as a TV cliché of hellish proportions. But the atmosphere is too angry, without enough lightness of touch, to be an enjoyable evening out.
There is no doubt fun to be had in all the shouting, hand-wringing, bitchiness and back-stabbing of this play, but despite the best efforts of the actors, the stakes simply don't feel high enough to make it convincing. At best this makes their oscillating moral choices trite and at worse forced and preaching. The final scene brings us full circle, the central dilemma and indecision of the play squeezed into one catchy but unedifying question, asked over a bottle of water and laughably heavy with implied meaning: 'So what's it to be, Adam, still or sparkling?'.