By the time Ben Elton's Popcorn fingered the often peculiarly American mentality of seeking celebrity through atrocity, popular culture had already moved on a level; nowadays the key to media exposure is not being a perpetrator but a victim. None of the foregoing should be read as a comment on last month's events, which are of course all too horrifically real for the comparatively trivial universe of "reality TV", the setting for David Farr's new play The Danny Crowe Show in a fizzing production by Dominic Hill at the Bush Theatre.
Danny Crowe is "the Pope of pain", the victims he parades on the screen more warped and pathetic than anyone else's, his understanding and absolution more transcendent. We never see either Danny or the show onstage, of course: he exists only on the other end of a mobile phone, demanding that his team find ever sadder examples of the commodity they call "underbelly" to put before the cameras. One researcher, having gone AWOL for four months, is tracked down by her producer boyfriend living rough in a Lancashire church hall, where she has apparently found the ultimate "underbelly", an inarticulate young man who has just stabbed his morbid, abusive father to death.
This is one of those plays where one should not give away the plot in review. Suffice it to say that Farr's black satire is wickedly sharp both upon the sausage-machine mentality which gobbles up such pathetic cases and upon the notion of appearing on shows like this as a first step on the road to fame in one's own right. His target is plainly not so much the genre in itself as the culture which has spawned it and which consumes it so voraciously: the key here is the casual reference to human misfortune as "product", even by those who profess to be that product themselves.
Mark Rice-Oxley is impressively obsessive as young Peter, able to turn on a sixpence between moods and personae. The principal delight in a darkly enjoyable evening is Tom Goodman-Hill's phenomenal comic talent as Miles the producer: as the play moves further into the territory of farce, Goodman-Hill manages to crank up the frenzy by dropping rather than raising his voice. Even the design is delicious, a classic Tom Piper "Converta-Set" revisiting his days as a fringe wonder-worker before larger stages and resources beckoned. Too often these days mere generic caricature is passed off as satire, but this is the real thing: even as we laugh, we feel the darts hitting us, their real target.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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