Jerry Springer: The Opera, National Theatre

Note: This review is from 2003

Review by Steve Bennett

After successes at the Battersea Arts Centre and the Edinburgh Fringe, Jerry Springer - The Opera is now playing with the grown-ups; a proper theatrical run that means a bigger production, raised expectations and higher stakes.

For new National Theatre director Nicholas Hytner, it is an inspired choice with which to launch his tenure. With opera full of mighty initiatives to attract a new audience, here's something that will actually work, as it so blatantly appeals to Generation X's sense of irony.

Certainly the sold-out previews are evidence of this, the lively youngish audiences a long way from your stereotypical opera-goers. Not that I've never tried it, but I'm sure Covent Garden would take a pretty dim view of you clapping along to the catchier bits of La Traviata, or punching the air and crying out 'Car-men', 'Car-men' during moments of high drama. For, like the TV show itself, there's more than a touch of pantomime about this production.

During the opera's two-year gestation, The Jerry Springer Show may have lost its iconic position of the touchstone of trash culture, but it's clear its raucous atmosphere and parade of pitifully outlandish guests can still pull the crowds. And former stand-up Stewart Lee and composer Richard Thomas certainly tap into the guilty pleasures the show offers.

Their creation offers a freakish carnival of gruesome guests confessing their outrageous secrets, each weirder than the last. The chick with a dick is trumped by the lapdancing crack whore who, in turn, is trumped by the nappy fetishists who crave a 'smack on the asshole'. They are a tormented lot, full of self-loathing, misery and overwrought emotions - no wonder it makes for good opera.

The laughs come where, in the words of the publicity blurb, high culture and low culture collide. The audience is chuckling even before the first syllable is complete (but of course, being opera, this does take about three minutes), recognising the start of the most tortuously elaborate chant of 'Jer-ry,' 'Jer-ry'.

It's not just a clash of cultures, though, it's a clash of comedy, too. Hearing the rudest of words being repeatedly sung in overlapping, powerful, operatic voices is intrinsically funny and makes for relatively straightforward laughs, but the show offers more than this.

There's pathos as the guests pine for their Jerry Springer moment in the TV spotlight, a wry commentary of the sort of society that could throw up a show like this, and, in the considerably revamped second act, the full-on epic good versus evil battle as Jerry descends into the fiery bowels of hell, his warm-up man more than living up to his job title. This opens a door for a more than cynical take on the scriptures, as Jerry tries a futile reconciliation between God and the Devil.

This whole ridiculous scenario is played entirely straight from start to finish - it wouldn't work if it didn't. The impressive cast are all powerful, emotive singers, former Dempsey and Makepeace star Michael Brandon, right, is Jerry Springer and the production design faultless.

It all allows for the big set pieces to be played out with gusto, most notably the chorus of choreographed Ku Klux Klansmen, performing an extravagant song and dance routine, complete with flaming crucifix, in a dazzling display of bad taste that would shame Springtime For Hitler. The finale, with two dozen tap-dancing Jerrys taking to the stage, burns in the memory, too.

It's wild, impressive, funny stuff, with all the makings of a cult hit. It can't be too long until fans start turning up dressed in nappies and the phrase 'dip me in chocolate and throw me to the lesbians' enters the lexicon of slang. And rightly so, for this opera's a riot.

Steve Bennett
April 30, 2003

Review date: 1 Jan 2003
Reviewed by: Steve Bennett

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