Friday 1 February 2002

Jerry Springer: the opera

Battersea Arts Centre, London

It’s a tall order to make something that is already an absurdity and parody it without making it cliché and trite. Yet Richard Thomas and Stewart Lee’s Jerry Springer: the Opera is able to do it wonderfully and hilariously.

With a witty sense of mockery and sympathy, the two-act play/musical/opera gracefully glides through the foolishness of the show without simply turning to bashing the people who partake or Springer himself. And just when the second act seems on the verge of veering into generic altruisms, the script gets back to the hilarity that made it engaging and amusing in the first place.

The first act takes place with a simple enough setting: a musical rendition of the Jerry Springer show. After a prologue from the studio audience singing “Jerry, Jerry” and the warm up man Jonathan (Ian Shaw) chiding on the audience, Springer (Rick Bland) comes down the centre aisle, shaking hands with the audience and begins the show, “Guests with Guilty Secrets.” The first act is all hilarity and laughs, seemingly lifted right from episodes of the show and put to music, right down to the commercial breaks advertising Prozac. They even have the “Jerry cam” follow around Chucky after he proclaims his only guilty secret is that he likes flowers more than people and expose him for a cocaine-snorting Ku Klux Klan member. The clan then comes on stage and a brawl ensues between the guests. However, unlike any episode broadcast thus far, Springer is shot and the lights close on the first act.

When the second act opens, (a little clumsily) Springer finds himself in hell, face to face with the devil. Satan himself demands that Jerry host a special performance of his show, mitigating a battle between the Dark Lord and Jesus. When this first started I had to cringe, fearing the worst type of moral posturing, but it actually turns out to be the best part of the show. All the divine figures (Adam and Eve, Jesus himself) turn out to be no better than the guests from the first half of the show. Adam sings that all women are no better than “whores and sluts” and Eve mocks Adam’s sexual stature.

Richard Thomas’ music is sublime and wonderfully carries the plot. The only member of the cast who doesn’t sing is Bland playing Springer. The rest of the script is sung and it gives a nice sense of what Springer has perfected: engaging with the guests without ever really seeming a part of them. He remains separate, but is forced to confront his separation by the end of the play. The snippets that Thomas wrote for the play are used briefly, sometime for only seconds. But the best bits recur, such as when Chantel (Adey Grummet) sings “Talk to the ass,” or “I just want to dance.” Thomas features the same songs when Grummet plays Eve, allowing the music to draw the comparison between the biblical figure and her mortal counterpart.

On the whole, you could criticise Stewart Lee and Thomas for simply using the people featured in the show for pot shots and absurd situational gags. But there’s also an underlying sympathy to it all. You can’t help but feel for the characters. They want some way out of the lifestyles they lead, but have been given no other choice and know no other alternatives. Lap dancing seems like a better life than being trampled all the time. The play is able to take the humour of the show and meld it with an understanding for the people of the show. Oh, and it’s simply great for a laugh.


Jerry Springer: the Opera is at Battersea Arts Centre, London until 23 February 2002

Now showing at the Royal National Theatre until 5 July 2003


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