Sunday 27th April 2014, matinée
As we already know from trying to review My Perfect Mind last year at the Young Vic (a show which is enjoying a brief return there this September), productions from Told By An Idiot tend to defy description. Billed as a dark satire on 1970s children’s TV, Never try this at home at the Soho Theatre somehow combines an anarchic style which looks almost completely improvised with precision ‘recreations’ of clips from TV shows, which at various points are paused, rewound, or fast forwarded. All of this action is framed within another TV show ‘Looking back together’, allowing writer Carl Grose to simultaneously parody a second genre of TV, the nostalgic reunion show, with the deliciously creepy host trying desperately to bring something positive out of the disastrous final episode of fictional children’s show ‘Shushi’ by visiting the participants decades later and ‘helping’ them to come to terms with what happened.
Comedy is the priority here, and there are plenty of opportunities for satire as we wonder how these shows ever got on to TV, with grown adults behaving like children on speed. Grose captures perfectly the utterly brainless puns and lame excuses for custard pie wielding and water-sloshing. Whether it’s poetry corner, in which each ‘poet’ nominates a pie-related work of fiction and gets a pie in the face, the ‘make a dog’ feature which never happens, but seems to involve various stuffed dog parts nailed to a board, or the more sinister moments in which female presenter Petra Massey is made to eat various foods blindfolded, or black wannabe singer Okorie Chukwu is humiliated in different ways each time he thinks he is going to get to sing a song uninterrupted.
Another layer of darkness is added by Niall Ashdown’s TV host, who is quick to smugly point out the political incorrectness of the seventies – a particularly hilarious sequence has two white men arguing over how to portray the character of a Korean butler without being offensive – in a highly offensive way, of course. At the same time he seems to only reinforce the misogyny of the times by harassing Petra Massey into appearing on the show and then making her sit through the clips from her lowest moments in the name of ‘catharsis’. The parallel with Piers Morgan’s ‘Life Stories’ show was horribly apparent. The message here seems to be that we may be less obvious about it now, but TV has probably not come that far in conquering rampant sexism, racism, and exploitation – indeed some may say things have only got worse.
The company of six all bring relentless energy and spot-on characterisation to the show, instantly recognisable as the kind of stock characters which we are familiar with. Niall Ashdown begins proceedings as the warm-up guy who doesn’t know any jokes, before metamorphosing into the host of ‘Looking back together’, smooth, relaxed, and with a nice dose of passive aggression just simmering beneath the surface. Dudley Rees is perfect as the wunderkind, ‘discovered’ by the producer at fourteen mowing a lawn on a hot day (know what we mean?), still optimistic about making a comeback in his fifties. Petra Massey is both vulnerable and plucky as the female host who has had enough – as the action progresses, we can hear her more and more often shouting ‘get OFF, get OFF’ as the male characters take every opportunity for a grope amidst the mayhem. Her ‘revenge’, living a quiet, anonymous, life in the South of France, is dignified and throws everything else into relief. Okorie Chukwu perfectly captures the naivety of the hopeful performer who is in reality the butt of everyone’s jokes, and Ged Simmons and Stephen Harper as the laddish presenter and producer team supply the necessary quota of 70s style sexist male bravado.
There is plenty of slapstick in this production, and audience members in the first two rows get a free plastic mac, but the real delight, as we might expect from this company, is in the sly, spot-on humour which takes no prisoners. This may be a ‘homage’ to Saturday morning TV, but the affection is laced with some genuinely disturbing insights too.