Jerry Springer the Opera
Music by Richard Thomas, book and lyrics by Stewart Lee and Richard Thomas
Theatre Royal, Newcastle, and touring
Newcastle United may be lying seventh in the premiership at the moment but the Theatre Royal leads in the Jerry Springer protest league table! Around 300 protestors turned up on the opening night to sing hymns, hold up placards and hand out leaflets in the square just outside the theatre. It was, in fact, quite a good-humoured protest and the fairly light police presence was not needed. Members of the predominantly young audience, some of them singing along with the hymns, took photos on their mobile phones and when I joked with the theatre's chaplain, Canon Peter Strange of Newcastle Cathedral, that he should be outside and not in the theatre, he replied, "What they don't realise is that it is a very moral show."
And he is right. If you find four-letter words offensive, then you will find the show offensive, but people do talk like that, especially those who appear on the TV show (although they were often "bleeped out" if shown before the watershed). However once you get past that - and allowing for a little theatrical exaggeration! - what you get is, in the first half, an operatic version of the TV show, and, in the second, what happens in the mind of Springer as he lies dying, after being shot by a nappy-wearing black man who is trying to shoot one of the tap-dancing Ku-Klux-Klan men. Springer sees the conflict between good and evil, between God and the Devil, and his own ambivalent moral position in terms of the characters who have just appeared on the show. The warm-up man, whom he has just sacked, becomes Satan and the nappy-wearer becomes Jesus, only his nappy has transmuted into a loincloth - as on every crucifix you have ever seen. And they behave exactly as people behave on his show, for how else can Springer view life (this one or the next) except in terms of his own experience?
One of the protestors' placards read "Spite is not right", but the show is not spiteful and in no way attacks Christianity. It is the society which spawns not only the TV show but also the people who are its subjects which is attacked, and the moral ambivalence of Springer himself, who not only profits from those sad people but also refuses to accept any responsibility for what he does - he doesn't, he tells us, do "conflict resolution".
But what is the show itself? Its quality as a piece of music theatre has, regrettably, been lost in the prejudice (on both sides)-fuelled controversy which surrounds it.
It is funny. It is filthy. It is the Jerry Springer Show taken to extremes and evokes the same mixture of horrified fascination and hilarity. It is well performed with an extremely hard-working and talented chorus. They and the soloists were in superb voice last night and Rolf Saxon makes a convincing Jerry Springer, the only member of the cast who doesn't sing.
Musically it is something of a pastiche, with influences ranging from Handel to Lloyd Webber (appropriately there are numerous echoes of Superstar), with Verdi thrown in for good measure. But the styles are always appropriate and flow together without any sense of jarring.
However someone should tell the programme designer that those of us who have less than perfect eyesight find (often very small) white text on a black background with headings in two shades of blue extremely difficult - indeed irritating - to read!
The show plays at the Theatre Royal until Saturday and then goes on to Norwich, Bristol, Bradford, Southend, Liverpool, Cardiff, Nottingham, Croydon and Brighton, where it ends on 7th July
Gill Stoker reviewed the original production at the RNT Lyttelton in 2003
Reviewer: Peter Lathan