Jerry Springer the Opera
Music & lyrics by Richard Thomas, book & additional lyrics by Stewart Lee & Richard Thomas
Northern Ricochet Productions
Hope Mill Theatre, Manchester
This unusual piece of musical theatre has been attracting controversy now for 17 years, mostly from religious groups demanding that it is censored of references that would offend people who would never go to see it anyway, but there were no pickets outside Hope Mill Theatre on press night—perhaps the Manchester weather kept them away.
Or has society moved on so that this is no longer shocking or even relevant in 2019? Well, the recent controversy over the cancellation of the Jeremy Kyle show, the downmarket UK equivalent of Springer's tabloid-style sensationalist revelation show in which people try to solve their most intimate and personal problems by broadcasting them on national television, has brought the issues that it covers back into the spotlight, in the UK at least. And there's still plenty in here to rile Christians looking to be offended.
The show is divided into three acts, but really it is two halves, with act II just a short interlude taking us into act III. The first half is a recreation of a Jerry Springer show, starting with the warm-up man (Tom Lloyd) instructing the lively audience (the cast plus community choir) on behaviour and protocol before Jerry (Michael Howe) comes on to introduce a sequence of guests admitting their various infidelities, desires and perversions, kept apart by security guard Steve (Kai Jolley), while the audience egg them on and sling insults at them. The revelations are ridiculous, but no more so than in the real thing.
The twist in this recreation of the TV show (clue in the title) is that, while Jerry speaks as in the original from his cue cards, everyone else (apart from a brief speech by Steve) sings the foul-mouthed dialogue, which could be straight out of the original show or one of its copies, in extremely complex operatic arrangements by composer Richard Thomas. If the dialogue were spoken, it would be funny, shocking and true to the original; having it sung as opera somehow makes it more shocking and funnier. I was watching people staring with their mouths and eyes wide open at what had been said/sung between laughing hysterically.
At the end of act I, Jerry is shot accidentally and starts back after the interval in purgatory, where Satan (Howe again) asks him to stage a special edition of The Jerry Springer Show in which he reconciles Satan with God (Matt Bond) and Jesus (David Burilin). Jerry protests that he doesn't solve people's problems, "I televise them," but... well, I won't repeat what Satan threatens to do to him if he refuses. This is the bit that attracts the protests, where Jesus admits he is "a bit gay" and speaks in a way that doesn't really tally with how he is portrayed in the gospels. It's also where the plot is at its least coherent, making it seem quite confusing and repetitive and a little overlong, introducing Adam and Eve (Robbie Waugh and Cici Howells), Jesus's grumpy teenage mother Mary (Elizabeth Chadwick) and several others.
James Baker has directed a production that is loud, brash and fast-moving—some audience members came out at the interval looking like they had just stepped off a rollercoaster. It's the kind of show where you'll either laugh a lot or not return after the interval and the production embraces that fully, never shying away from the message. There are a few slight updates: the adverts are apparently now on social media sites, which doesn't make sense in the middle of a TV programme but doesn't distract, and the current US president is represented, first by a small puppet and then through his red MAGA baseball cap worn by the redneck guest, who then unfurls respectfully a Confederate flag before Jerry introduces the dancing Ku Klux Klan members.
Victoria Hinton-Albrieux's design is tackily perfect, reminding me of Rocky Horror sequel Shock Treatment (also set in a TV studio). I'm not convinced, however, by sound designer Chris Bogg's decision to attach mics to all 25 of the cast and chorus in a venue that small; the resulting sound mix when all are singing at once is extremely harsh and lacking in clarity, and it gave me a headache.
Hopefully the above will give you a good idea about whether this show is for you. If so, go and see it as it is a great revival of a show that can still pack a shocking punch, even if the wayward plot makes it feel a bit too long at times. I'm still not sure what, if anything, Lee and Thomas are saying about The Jerry Springer Show and others of its ilk or about Christianity, but it's all great fun.
Reviewer: David Chadderton