Review by Bradley Chapman
Somehow, the very specific genre of ‘newsroom comedy’ seems to be a staple of the Australian comic landscape. For decades we have celebrated any and all comic reimaginings of the television news format, in forms ranging from mockumentary, parody, political satire and even in the sketch comedy of decades past.
It is difficult to pinpoint exactly why Australian audiences connect to such stories, but it may be safe to assume that it is because this aesthetic is so immediately recognisable. Within a format that is so easy to identify, tried and true comic tropes are given more room to breathe.
This is certainly true of Thundering Productions’ debut stage production, Live in Five, which seems determined to deliver a joke on almost every line. Although the script itself is a UK piece, the production feels at home on an Australian stage. The characters fit seamlessly into this landscape, holding a light-hearted and lightly-cynical mirror up to the audience, and a people and culture we know too well.
Live in Five is a story of the rather inept team behind local news station. When the head anchor is removed after a particularly disastrous evening bulletin, the rest of the staff are pitted against each other to take over his role, each resorting to underhanded tactics, heavy-handed pranks and all out war to claim the first chair for themselves.
The ensemble cast are mostly given equal weight which means there is a lot happening in Live in Five. With so many threads to keep track of, the script doesn’t always succeed. Luckily, though, this production’s strengths are in its director, Jack Lovett. Lovett clearly understands the beats of comedy and has managed to craft an energetic – and often frantic – piece that manages to sail beyond the sometimes-restrained humour of the script itself. Lovett hits physical gags as much as verbal ones, which means the audience never stays silent for long.
Lovett’s cast are similarly up to the challenge. Jacques Lecoq, a French theatre practitioner and a master of clowning, spoke of le jeu: the element of playfulness inherent in comedy. Lecoq believed that true humour came from the ability of the actors to play with the audience, not just perform for them, and there is certainly a sense of le jeu amongst this ensemble.
Nicholas Hurst’s plays Calloway, the womanising anchorman, and does so sublimely. His fall from grace, the catalyst of the show’s narrative, is masterfully performed, and Calloway’s physical comedy is an essential ingredient in what makes this show stick the landing.
Hurst is ably supported by Ethan Speight as Booker, Calloway’s co-host. Booker is skin-crawlingly cringey, and the kind of character that could be a huge turn off for the audience without a charismatic actor beneath it. Thankfully, Speight oozes charisma and showmanship, and leaves the audience slightly rooting for Booker against their better judgement.
Zoe Fishpool is Maisie Hawthorne, who has been contracted by the station to hold up cue cards as the teleprompter has broken down. It’s a nonsensical contrivance, sure, but Fishpool’s performance is the heart and soul of the production. A talented comedian, Fishpool gives us a Maisie who is effervescently wholesome with a slight edge that makes for some great comic moments.
As the station’s meteorologist, Heather, Mikayla Maree Melo is a lot of fun. Melo has the ability to find a joke within a joke, and there are several times throughout the show where her timing and delivery, and not the words of the script themselves, are what sell the moments of peak humour.
Another strength of both the script and performance is Chantelle Miller’s no-nonsense production manager, Jessie. Swear-word-based humour is a difficult beast to tame; in lazier productions, swear words are overused, or used in place of punchlines, or just kind of there. With Jesse, who is attempting to give up swearing for Lent, the jokes are crafted around the words, so they become catalysts for, not the result of, humour. Miller’s timing is spot on, and so she lands these trickier jokes expertly, to the delight of her audience.
The rest of the cast bring equal parts charm and laughter. As the station head, Russell White is a domineering counterpoint to the shenanigans of the team. Samuel Baker is a loveable, endearing goofball who brings balance to the chaos. And Daniel Dosek, in what must be 3 minutes of stage time, somehow manages not just to steal the scene, but holds it at gunpoint and escapes across state lines with it bundled in the boot of his car.
The production is aided by a perfectly suited music score, involved what sounds like a pop rendition of a typical news bulletin sting. Another nice element enhancing the overall aesthetic is the use of time jumps, such as ‘two weeks later’, displayed as news tickers across the back of the performance space. If only the cleverness of this idea wasn’t undermined by an overreliance on blackouts, which can only ever break tension and disengage those of us left waiting in the dark.
All in all, Live in Five was a lot of fun. As this new production company continues to find its feet and leave its mark on the Gold Coast theatre scene, there will inevitable be many more great things emerging.
Thundering Productions is aptly named – the applause of the overjoyed audience was, in a word, thundering.