Talk Radio marked a turning point in Eric Bogosian’s career. He said he wrote it at a time in his life when “confusion reigned”. He was finally starting to make a living as a solo artist and performer. He had just got married. And then Talk Radio got nominated for the 1987 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and Oliver Stone decided to turn it into a film. Eric Bogosian played the lead character, Barry Champlain, in the film – just as he did on stage in New York the year before.
Throughout his oeuvre – SubUrbia (1994) and Wake up and Smell the Coffee (2000) come to mind – Bogosian creates characters who say shocking things, who transcend modern society’s filters, who do this with courage even as they realise they are busting themselves. The price of freedom. Talk Radio is specifically about free speech in a market society, public dialogue sponsored by business: in other words, talking for money. Sound familiar? Were it not for Max Dorey’s time-sensitive set (complete with piles of cassette tapes), you might think that Barry Champlain’s radio talk show is happening today.
There is even a rat: a big ugly dead rat that lands on Barry Champlain’s desk after a – not to be a spoiler – dramatic event.
The play starts with two assistants, Stu (George Turvey) and Linda (Molly McNerney), waiting for local radio shock jock star Barry Champlain to arrive at the station to host his regular weeknight show, Night Talk with Barry Champlain. They’re about to send for him when Barry (Matthew Jure) walks in, still looking like the underground hippie DJ he started off as many years ago. The “ON AIR” sign has been switched on; Stu has fielded a list of callers. The topic is “the mess this country is in”: Barry is getting ready to brawl with his loyal Cleveland listeners when his producer Dan (Andy Secombe) barges in. He has news: Night Talk is going national. The execs are listening tonight. The pressure’s on. Barry can’t fuck up.
This is more fun than a live talk show – and the play follows Barry’s performance in real time versus invisible callers. Barry is the undisputed master of ceremonies, the centre of this deranged universe. Jure is fantastic in conveying his lightning-quick intelligence. No matter the caller’s political persuasion, Barry is ready to pounce; he eviscerates their arguments like a rabid animal. To keep a show like this going, Barry needs a raw, unhinged energy and a deep-seated anger; Jure demonstrates both of these with aplomb.
Sean Turner’s direction is focused and subtle. There is a masterful scene in which Barry spars with a neo-Nazi caller who had previously posted a swastika flag to his studio; after the call is over, Barry hangs the flag on his studio wall out of spite. It is provocation but it is confusion as well; you see where this is going. Bogosian saw the future. Barry, like so many after him, is nothing but an entertainer. He shocks for ratings, not out of conviction. But he can’t admit it. He’s running on ego. He wants to be God.
This is where the rat comes in. Barry keeps leaning on it with his arm, with his hand, to get to the microphone, to press on the hang up red button. At first I thought it was obliviousness. Soon, however, it becomes something more profound: Barry is all-consumed by his mission. But his fans know that he is being paid to entertain them, not to start a revolution, and it is poignant to watch Barry throw everything he’s got, even his loyal Stu, even Linda who loves him and whom he loves, into this fight against the truth.
The film Talk Radio ends violently. The play ends with Barry admitting to his listeners: “I guess we’re stuck with each other.” We know that Barry’s coming back to work on Monday. If only another entertainer posing as opinion-maker had Barry’s courage, the world would be a different place now.
Talk Radio continues at the Old Red Lion Theatre until Sep 23. Tickets are £18 (£16 concessions).