“I am sure you can all tell we’re going to have a great show tonight”
‘The show must go on’. Rarely can the oft-glibly offered aphorism have possessed such poignant resonance as at the Royal Court over the past week. Alistair McDowell’s Talk Show should have marked the end of the hugely ambitious weekly rep season, with a company of fourteen actors working their way through six new plays with just a week’s rehearsal for each. But instead, the news that company member Paul Bhattacharjee had gone missing during rehearsals, being followed by the discovery of his body a week later cast the most tragic sheen over the show.
The company opted to continue, initially recasting his (relatively small) role and then dedicating the remainder of the run to him. An incredibly tough decision at the best of times but sitting through the play and realising it touched so deeply on the emotional inarticulacy of generations of men, to the point where suicide becomes a viable option, there’s an almost incomprehensible poignancy about the determination to honour a colleague’s memory.
In many ways, Talk Show felt like the best of the weekly rep plays. McDowall has three generations of the same family living in a cramped house – 20-something graduate Sam is jobless and centres his energies on his nightly internet chat show, usual audience 6; his father Bill is also unemployed and unable to secure even the most menial jobs and so they both live with his father Ron, a gently wise figure who has seen it all before. Into this scenario tumbles Jonah, Bill’s brother who went AWOL after an emotional breakdown and his return merely focuses the desperation of this whole household.
And he does this through some powerfully emotive writing. There’s a huge amount of humour but constantly underlaid with darker notes: Ryan Sampson’s Sam is a near comic genius as the wisecracking host interviewing people like the guy from the fried chicken place down the street yet never feels more than three heartbeats from the deepest sadness, a young man unable to comprehend why he’s not been able to find his place in the world. And Jonjo O’Neill’s Jonah has a unique take on the world that is bleakly hilarious but again, the fiercely burning intensity within reminds us of the kind of pain that can never heal.
Ferdy Roberts’ taciturn Bill epitomises the stoic, suffering silence that characterises so much of the interactions between these men, with a painfully observed understatement. And it is this that strikes home the hardest, the knowledge that even the people we live with and are closest to can hide the deepest feelings in their soul and find it impossible to share the pain, to look for help, to cope. In Talk Show, dramatic license allows for an intervention and the tiniest glimmer of hope; in real life, we’re reminded that things are rarely that easily resolved.
Caroline Steinbeis’ assured direction maintained a strong focus, allowing for the comic beats to hit as hard as the emotional ones, and the appearance of a six foot python provided some light relief as the inquisitive reptile decided that it was more interested in burrowing inside Lee Armstrong’s shirt than performing on the Sloane Square stage. McDowall’s writing shows much promise and it is not hard to see this particular play gaining some kind of further life whether here or elsewhere and it deserves it, the opportunity to shine on its own merits. For this particular production will live in the memory for tragically wrong reasons – the visible emotion at the curtain call, the horrendous period of uncertainty after Bhattacharjee’s disappearance played out in uncomfortably public view, and the untimely death of a much-treasured actor who had so much more to give.