King's Head Theatre, London N1
Opened 11 November, 1999

If producer Bill Kenwright is using the King's Head to try out Family Viewing before a possible West End run, it is unlikely that Trevor Baxter's play will be joining such recent shows from this pub theatre as Song At Twilight and A Saint She Ain't among the bright lights; if Kenwright aimed to help the Islington venue out in its hour of funding need, he is unlikely to have done much for its reputation by using it as the venue for such a dull fifth-form satire. Family Viewing does not quite stink, but it's more than a little whiffy.

The programme notes spout earnest socio-psycho-babble like "What we watch influences who we are; who we are decides how we live...", but forget all that tosh: Baxter has simply taken a blunderbuss to the idea of crass TV game-shows. He creates a quartet of types: the vacuous, victimised but still single-mindedly self-seeking woman; the gay, insecure, doomed-to-be-forever-a-loser counsellor; the tasteless greedhead young venture-capitalist; and the shiny-suited shark of a presenter. Through the first half he gives them a series of monologues to establish their stereotypes ("characters" is too flattering a word), then brings them together as contestants and host of new telly show "A Life To Die For", vying with one another to have their dearest wishes (to set up a sex clinic, or a day-care centre for victims of cosmetic surgery, or just to go hetero) granted. After the interval, the characters are allowed to interact as the stakes get higher and higher, and the writing moves further and further both from reality and from any kind of quality control. A fairly distinguished cast including Ann Bryson and Reece Dinsdale give far more than the script deserves. Director Jennie Darnell overlooks several basic staging points of the "plug in your irons" kind; Baxter's script shows no real knowledge of any of the areas he touches upon, and gives up all hope of a remotely digestible ending. He gets so carried away with shooting fish in a barrel that he takes a bazooka to the barrel itself, then mortar-bombs the entire cooperage.

Over ten years ago I saw a student production entitled Damage Your Children, about a game show in which parents volunteered to torment and mutilate their little ones for big money prizes. At the time, I thought it was inexcusably sick; in the intervening years, I have more than once wished I could see it again, not least because its creators have gone on to become award-winning comedy group The League of Gentlemen. It showed both more insight and more maturity of writing than Baxter's drivel. In fact, I've changed my mind since beginning this review; Family Viewing does stink, after all.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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