Serial Killers

James Griffin
Derby Playhouse
(2005)

Soap operas have never been my favourite brand of entertainment: as a young lad I used to get indigestion when I was forced to watch Crossroads at teatime; I could never understand my son's desire to watch Neighbours when he came home from school; and I've always found the antics of people in the Rover's Return and the Queen Vic rather bitter.

But one programme I'd go out of my way to watch would be Heart of Hearts, the fictional soap at the centre of James Griffin's play Serial Killers. Talk about improbable storylines - a brave doctor going into a burning building to rescue a patient, a truck depositing a load of concrete on a ward, and staff with hopelessly entangled relationships - they're all designed to keep the viewers enthralled.

Serial Killers is loosely based on Griffin's time working on the New Zealand soap Shortland Street. He's come up with a sharply observed look at the behind-the-scenes dramas which take place before a television programme takes to the air.

As one of the characters points out, it's a war between the writers and the actors. When scriptwriters come up with a great storyline, they don't get the credit - it's the actor who looks good and gets more adulation from the viewing public.

Occasionally, though, the writers get the opportunity to kill a "pretty fish", as the actors are known - and the more bizarre the actor's demise the better, as far as the wordsmiths are concerned.

In Serial Killers, five writers sit around the "table of pain" trying to think up a way of getting rid of one of the main characters in Heart of Hearts, Dr Robert Gilligan. They think he's become boring, so it's time for him to depart in a blockbusting storyline. But Andrew Lomas who plays the heartthrob doctor doesn't want to be written out because Heart of Hearts has become his life. He takes the writers hostage and holds a gun to their heads to get them to change the script.

Taking the main role in Serial Killers is Mark Little, coincidentally back on the small screen at the moment as Joe Mangel in Neighbours. He effortlessly slips into the role of philandering chauvinist Alan, the extremist who would love to write a scene in Heart of Hearts in which a bus drives off a cliff with all the main actors on board.

Little portrays Alan as a larger-than-life character whose brash manner and garish shirt mark him down as the stereotypical Aussie. He gets a good number of the laughs, especially when he covers his head in sticky tape during a barren period when everyone is suffering from writer's block. Yet he also displays sensitivity and compassion for Andrew.

Ben Steel is ideal as Andrew - in real life he suffered a similar fate, being written out of Home and Away. He's intellectually challenged and shows how reliant actors are on scriptwriters as he is almost totally bereft of ideas when challenged to come up with new storylines for his character.

The play is well acted by the cast of seven, although I disagreed with the decision for Julianne White, as incompetent producer Sally, merely to raise her voice in anger to overcome every problem.

The cast also have other roles to play - as the characters in Heart of Hearts. Derby Playhouse has been criticised for including the use of video in almost every production, but here the filmed inserts are an integral part of the show. The acting is slightly yet deliciously over the top while the episodes are cleverly written to present a cliffhanger at the end of every scene.

Some parts of Serial Killers are extremely funny and there are poignant moments, particularly in the second half. Dave Freeman's production is at its best when the audience has difficulty differentiating between the fantastical storylines and the increasingly complicated lives of the scriptwriters.

But there were also periods when I wanted more action or more revelations about some of the characters. Humour wasn't consistent throughout. And not everyone will like the ending; I was expecting something like a Heart of Hearts climax but in reality I thought the play fizzled out.

Serial Killers does have its moments, though. And I can guarantee you'll never look at a soap opera in the same light again.

"Serial Killers" runs until November 26th

Reviewer: Steve Orme