Drama Theatre, April 7 (until May 20)
Imagine finishing a play partially about truth in the media just as the Trump regime begins unleashing its deluge of lies. Jonathan Biggins must have wondered whether to laugh or cry. As timely as his premise and its implicit questions are, the play feels like an extravagantly extended sketch from Biggins’s usual satirical home of The Wharf Revue, complete with cartoon characters but minus the teeming laughs.
John Waters plays John Behan, a lunar-right shock-jock who, when the police attempt to arrest him for contempt of court, barricades himself in his studio and keeps broadcasting. On a cunning Mark Thompson-designed three-location set that action can continue intermittently while Julie Scott (Hannah Waterman) is hell-bent on making a thumping impression on her first day as acting editor of the Tele, and Taffy Campbell (Peter Kowitz) has his last day as a veteran ABC radio journalist.
Biggins, who also directed the play (for Sydney Theatre Company), lures us into quicksand where the line between reporting the news and making it dissolves, as does that between political interests and media ones. Campbell emerges as the only character with a moral compass aligned to true north, and Kowitz imbues him with knockabout warmth, while speaking in an accent akin to a guided tour of Britain. He tries to stuff his neophyte social media offsider, Dani (Paige Gardiner), back in her box by saying, “Social media’s just talk-back radio with a bigger switchboard,” but she’s too smug to understand.
Waters doesn’t have to do much beyond generic bastardry and ego buffing to create a form-guide Behan, while Lucia Mastrantone’s police media liaison officer and Andrew Tighe’s station manager are exaggerated into the realm of squirming irritation. In a cast completed by Valerie Bader, Kenneth Moraleda and Helen Christinson, Ben Wood gives a refreshing reminder of the art of understatement in comedy – and, for all its seriousness about the death of real journalism in the Twitter age, Talk remains a comedy with some very funny lines. There just aren’t enough of them.