Writer : Tom Walker & Andrew Doyle
Reviewer: Dave Cunningham
Patrons arriving at The Lowry are warned that anyone leaving Jonathan Pie’s show while it is in progress will be denied re-admission. This seems over the top until it becomes apparent that the show is so carefully constructed that anyone seeing only part may miss the point.
Back to the Studio blurs the line between stand-up comedy and theatre. For one thing the audience isn’t watching an actual stand up -’ Jonathan Pie’ is a fictitious character created and played by Tom Walker. The stage is set as if for a play with chairs for guests, a podium from which a speaker can address the audience, promotional banners and a screen upon which tacky images can be projected. Pie explains that the purpose of visiting Media City, where The Lowry is based, is to offer the BBC and ITV the chance to see ( and hopefully bid for) a pilot episode of his intended political chat show- The Jonathan Pie Political Roadshow. Pie explains that the phrase ‘Back to the Studio’ is a curse – it is uttered by presenters who are stuck out in the cold and rain with only the faint hope of landing a job on Antiques Roadshow to see them through the twilight years.
The character of Jonathan Pie is hardly new; over the years there have been any number of glib presenters trying to climb the greasy pole of broadcasting. Pie stands out, however, in that he is sincere, passionate even, in his political beliefs. Yet, here too, there are precedents- Ben Elton was doing the rapid fire political rant as long ago as the 1980’s and Viz magazine had the foul-mouthed TV presenter Roger Melly The Man on the Telly.
Initially, it seems that Pie is pandering to, rather than challenging, the perceived opinions of his audience. Even those who share his opinions on the likes of Theresa May and Donald Trump would acknowledge that the subjects have been done to death. Pie has to admit that he is reduced to criticising the standard of spelling and grammar in Trump’s tweets to find anything new to say.
It is the theatrical aspect that raises Back to the Studio above the norm. In the final third of the show, Pie offers to explain the meaning of newly-developed acronyms and words taking the viewpoint that if you have to constantly invent new words to describe existing political or societal problems then the attitudes that gave rise to the problems have not been tackled. At this point it starts to become clear that the target for Pie’s satire is the way in which social media has facilitated people being able to engage in highly subjective acts of outrage that become a kind of censorship as society no longer has commonly-agreed standards of what is considered acceptable behaviour. In a beautifully-constructed conclusion, Pie reaches back through the show pulling out elements, the significance of which were not immediately apparent, to make his point.
Back to the Studio is not going to be to everyone’s taste. Those expecting a polite Radio 4 satire might find the language (Millennials are described as ‘Generation Twat’) too abrasive. Even those who share Pie’s viewpoint will have to acknowledge that some of the subjects are over-familiar. But for those prepared to go the distance the imaginative approach of Back to the Studio will demonstrate what can be achieved within the stand-up format without sacrificing the jokes.
Reviewed on 25th March 2018