Sunday, July 14

Telethon – Shoreditch Town Hall

Telethon, written and directed by Stu Barter and Clare Dunn, is a surreal dark comedy exploring the division in today’s society and how this is exacerbated by social media, as well as performative action and how people use this to make themselves feel better about situations in which they are otherwise helpless or unwilling to take action drastic enough to make a real difference.

The show is presented as a live TV charity variety show, presented by veteran TV presenter, Jennifer (Katie Lovell), breakout children’s TV presenter, Erica (Clare Dunn) and successful YouTube vlogger, Chris (Archie Backhouse). All three are super enthusiastic about raising enough money to plant one million trees in the UK to fight climate change, but as Jennifer’s scandalous history starts to impact their efforts, Erica and Chris’ own fragile careers hang on a thread as their own morality is brought under the spotlight of live and uncut television, with a lively and opinionated social media commentary becoming louder and louder in the online background.

The show features some audience participation and BSL interpretation, with other elements of the performance being captioned on the onstage screens. These are of course not always visible on the online streamed version, but a fully captioned option is available.

The play really captures the spirit of a charity variety show, including the hypocrisy sometimes shown by some of the presenters “illustrating” the issues by visiting locations which have been affected while social media exposes the luxury holiday elements of such trips and the tacky, daring challenges that minor celebrities are willing to engage in for the cause, which also happen to help promote their own career and sponsorship deals.

Photo: Justin Jones

There are some dark elements in the background which give the characters interesting room to develop, particularly why Jennifer, who appears to have been a beloved personality at one point, has been off TV screens for a long period of time. There are also some darkly comic issues created with fundraisers at home. The show is trying to do and explore a lot in a short period of time and could benefit from some editing and focusing on a smaller number of elements rather than cover so much. The ending is also rather anticlimactic and could be much stronger if it was more definite. Unfortunately, the closing loses pace quite dramatically and this lack of energy saps the power of the points that the show had made.

The audience participation elements are fun and could be utilised further in the performance to enhance the atmosphere of online TV. Tongue in cheek humour nicely contrasts with Jennifer’s “offscreen” conversations with the show’s producer, in which the tragic elements of her rapidly unravelling life are exposed. Lovell’s performance as the anxious to be liked Jennifer is very strong and clever use of lighting enhances her strong emotions and body language.

Backhouse’s performance as the successful YouTuber, Chris is excellent and his constant relationship with his phone and audience is reminiscent of the need of influencers to “be on” all of the time. The human side of his personality is shown well when his mask drops and his anxiety is exposed. Dunn is also great as the children’s TV presenter eager to be taken seriously as a scientific expert. Her BSL interpretation manages to come across as both useful and interfering as she utilises the skill in a facetious way. Her attempts to fit in with the tackiness of the show while simultaneously being respected as a scientist is very funny.

The play veers between solemn and silly, much like the real life examples of this type of show. Jennifer’s need to maintain her sense of control is palpable and, this becomes more poignant as the pressure on her and her co-hosts increases. The regular updates of what is happening on social media adds depth to the show and keeps things moving along. Things become increasingly awkward as it becomes abundantly clear that she just has far too many plates in the air to cope.

Telethon is a fun and surreal show which exposes the dark world of big charities and the hopelessness felt by most people who are just trying to help. Disturbingly amusing and painfully funny to watch, the show captures the spirit of car crash TV, while giving an inside look into the lives of today’s celebrity culture. Topical references to climate change give this original and amusing show a sense of reality while raising some awareness of the real life issues impacting the crisis.

Telethon is being performed at Shoreditch Town Hall until 14th April 2022 with online streaming options available. Tickets are available here  

Reviewer: Donna M Day

Reviewed: 6th April 2022

North West End UK Rating: ★★★