THE EPISODE at the Wardrobe, Bristol

There have been Reality television shows as far back as the 40s and 50s but they really become a big phenomenon on our screens in the 90s with the rapid development of the ‘Big Brother’ style of programme. Later almost every job, subculture, sport or hobby seems to have been the subject of a TV programme. Unwary contestants are crowded together in unnatural surroundings, everyday occupations are followed by hidden cameras and star-struck wannabees are driven to compete for their dream job. A handful of participants have become celebrities overnight and occasionally sunk back into obscurity just as quickly.

Tom Brennen’s new play takes us behind the scenes of a ‘next top model’ style TV show as it enters its final season. We hear of the events through the reports of three protagonists: the cynical host, the naive camerawoman who becomes hooked on recording every detail and the arrogant production assistant (“I’m not their mom!”). The dialogue pings between the three actors as we hear about the show’s progression from one episode to the next. In front of a black background, a chair is the only prop and our attention is carefully focused on the actors and their delivery of three intertwined monologues; punctuated by 80s pop music and incorporated in subtle lighting.

Nesba Crenshaw (a dead ringer for Anna Wintour) plays the ex-magazine editor Kate, the show’s host. She’s suitably sniffy about her decline from fashion guru into reality TV (“People are often very nervous around me…”) She looks straight into our eyes and regales us with catwalk model techniques, dispensing her wisdom with a steady and calm aura. Jay is the contestants chaperon, played by Lolade Rufai. Flattering and aloof, reflecting the shallow nature of the industry (“There’s always a market for girls like her”) and occasional breaking the surface with personal memories. This play lacks a bit of insight into the characters’ personalities but with the camerawoman, played by Isobella Hubbard, we get some feeling of a warm, genuine individual. She’s caught up in the folly of celebrity TV, corrupted by her environment and at the same time cares a little for the contestants. There is a stuttering relationship narrated alongside her attempts to chronicle the increasingly fraught events on a camera that is “glued to my shoulder”.

Tom Brennen is a talented writer and director and his previous shows have been insightful, funny and entertaining (1972: The Future of Sex, Eloise and The Curse of The Golden Whisk and Rocky: A Horror Show). Here we are guided towards a violent climax as the ruthless side of reality TV is exposed and many aspects of the genre are explored; like just how many reality shows there actually are and who might be watching them. But my feeling is this piece doesn’t tell us anything we don’t already know about its subject. Having said that the three actors, complete with convincing American accents, perform well in the frugal direction and plain setting of this production.   ★★★☆☆    Adrian Mantle   17th February 2017