It’s interesting how the parameters of indignation shift. When Jerry Springer the Opera was staged at the National Theatre in 2003 – and even more so when it was broadcast on the BBC two years later – it caused controversy. Today, when major world leaders can make outrageous statements and be seemingly unscathed by the backlash, our threshold for shock and offence has been raised. Yet Richard Thomas and Stewart Lee’s show still feels surprisingly relevant.
Its clash of high and low culture brings opera to the TV studio, as Jerry Springer’s guests engage in salacious yet tuneful slanging matches, filled with ever more outlandish revelations. Just when it seems things couldn’t get weirder, the surreal second half lands Jerry in hell, where he’s forced to preside over a truly biblical dispute.
In the age of Trump, certain lines jump out. “You could run for Senate or even president,” Jerry’s warm-up man tells him, greeted with a chorus of bitter laughs. The show’s questioning of the moral responsibility of TV also feels newly pertinent after the axing of The Jeremy Kyle Show. Do shows like these just hold up the mirror to human behaviour, or is there something more insidious going on? Thomas and Lee’s expletive-laced lyrics will always be divisive, and there are moments when the desire to shock starts to feel gratuitous, but it’s hard to fault James Baker’s revival. This is a hugely ambitious show to mount on Hope Mill’s small stage, yet not once does the tight space feel overcrowded. Each last movement – ingeniously choreographed by Sindy Richardson – is precise yet animated, making brilliant use of the space.
The show’s look is striking, quickly banishing memories of the original production. In designer Victoria Hinton-Albrieux’s arresting vision, purgatory is a pastel-hued hotel lobby and hell is a hot-pink horrorshow. The production is also lightly peppered with visual references that bring the show into the social-media-suffused present, again suggesting its continued relevance. While some things have changed, the reign of sensationalising media is far from over.