Joan Davies is impressed by a shocking revival
Hope Mill Theatre is hosting a revival of the 2003 show Jerry Springer – The Opera, a somewhat controversial but highly regarded and raucous take on the equally controversial American tabloid talk show which ran for 27 years from the early nineties.
When this opera hit our tv screens in 2005 it gathered 47,000 complaints
This revival, by new production company Northern Ricochet, has all the hallmarks we’ve come to expect from Hope Mill: a largely young and intensely talented cast, sharp and perfected performance with beat-perfect timings, the intimacy of small surroundings and the expected press night standing ovation.
The cast of fourteen is superb, ably supported by the fourteen-strong Jerry Choir, drawn from across Greater Manchester. A sharp opening sequence, with its reference to gender fluid parents, reminds us how much widespread attitudes have changed in the last sixteen years.
The rest of the first act is simply an episode of the show. If you’ve never seen it, think Jeremy Kyle with more complexity: egging the audience on, dramatically switching their allegiances, and raising questions about the ethics of playing out painful scenarios in prime televised light.
The first group, of shall we say ‘contestants’ – Dwight, Peaches, Zandra - might not be out of place in a Mozart’s Don Giovanni, particularly when they’re all vocal at once. After two more stories Jerry is attacked.
Act 2 sees Jerry in purgatory, Act 3 in Hell; a charred version of his studio, where the battle is Satan’s demand for an apology from God for being forced out of the family home. Neat.
In a strong cast is filled with standout performances, Salford actor Emily Chesterton as Peaches and Baby Jane has a warm expressive soprano voice and draws empathy to her roles. Dwight’s inner turbulence of love and lust is effectively displayed by Matt Bond, and his vocal abilities shine throughout. Wirral actor Tom Lloyd has previously performed in Hope Mill’s Parade and returns to give edge to both Satan and Jonathan Weiruss, Jerry’s warm-up man. Andrew Patrick-Walker as Tremont gives a perfection lesson on allure in high heels.
The opera is sung throughout, with the exception of the role of Jerry Springer, played by Michael Howe, who bears a strong resemblance to Jerry. The spoken role sets him apart, as he was in real life: the instigator, the ‘God’, creating the encounters, manipulating events, then pronouncing in general terms while extoling the worth of eternal values. Superb casting, strong performance.
When this opera hit our TV screens in 2005 it gathered 47,000 complaints. The 2006 tour gained further criticism, particularly for some reason in Manchester where its early nights of its Opera House performance came with exceptional low price offers. Many of the complaints related to the portrayal of Jesus and God, though some also addressed language issues, the portrayal of a variety of sexual preferences and the apparent normalisation of cheating and serial-cheating. Jerry, and others like him, was thoroughly questioned about the ethics of what he did, the damage to ‘society’ and to the participants.
The power to shock has diminished. The format of these programmes has disappeared, making way for reality-popularity contests increasingly aware of their duty-of-care to contestants. We now see insults thrown to friends, foe and strangers every day on social media.
I enjoyed the first act, the replica of the shows. In a small venue you really feel part of the audience, and the quality of voice and its reproduction meant that every word was heard. This is standard at HMT, but still not always the case everywhere else, and is vital to the success of this show.
The second and third act suffer slightly from the lack of the specific contemporary context to underpin the cleverness of the irony and its influence on the content and structure of the show. Perhaps these scenes require more physical distance than a small venue can give. You almost wish for the pause for reflection necessitated by cast having to move around a large set. Perhaps after the frenetic press night there might be chance to take a breath.
It’s certainly a strong successor to earlier Hope Mill shows and an impressive start to the new Northern Ricochet production company: not yet a full Powerhouse, but well on its way.
Jerry Springer – The Opera runs at Hope Mill Theatre until Saturday 31 August