The only thing bigger than the eponymous top news story in this work by Sebastian Michael is the LA-sized meteor that is due to hit earth next Thursday. It’s now Friday, and from a TV in Talfryn’s flat – efficiently represented by a sofa on the other side of the stage – an anchorwoman is breaking the news with measured urgency.
Twenty-something Talfryn doesn’t just share this stage with the news team. Like Tony Kushner did before him, our playwright introduces a couple of angels to bring a metaphysical take on the end of world as we know it and, combining this ethereal land with the electronic world of the TV and the laddish world of Talfryn and his close friend Gus, the playwright artfully utilises this impending deadline to sketch out the numerous different conversations that an apocalypse might trigger.
Thanks to Adam Berzsenyi Bellaagh’s sensitive direction, these three simultaneous worlds coexist on stage without confusion. Bellaagh’s style is one that relies heavily on subtleties; for instance, when the two likable young men are active in the storyline, the TV personalities are frozen as if another character has simply pressed pause – a neat way of portraying their relationship within the same world. In contrast, the angels blink sharply and gaze around freely, a simple difference that underlines their otherworldly nature.
In a tight red dress and immobilising red stilettos, actress/model Josephine Kime brilliantly fills the role of newsreader Chrissie Craven, deemed “the sexiest woman on earth”. Yet far from merely embodying that particular stereotype, Kime cleverly infuses her part with an invaluable dose of industry knowledge, gained from the actor’s own training and experience as a broadcast journalist. As she knowingly mocks the media industry in a sharply punctuated and chirpy RP, she brings an humourous degree of mimicry to Chrissie’s appearance as a dumb blonde that powerfully mocks the ways of the broadcast media.
The fact that Chrissie is an intelligently envisioned caricature is humorous; the fact that her sexual appeal is repetitively highlighted through every interaction is not. As each correspondent and reporter tries to seduce the newsreader, what was a subtle imitation of broadcasting conventions becomes an over-laboured joke. Michael may be mature enough to model the theme of apocalypse into ripe, comic material, but what this production lacks is the ability to talk about everyday sexuality without coming across as juvenile.
Yet throughout Top Story, the characters, most notably Gus and Talfryn, excel at delivering meandering wine-bottle philosophies that delicately intertwine nonsense and meaning. Over a dwindling supply of ale, the boys contemplate the significance of choosing someone to die with, and interrogate the nature of freedom in a world due to end. This analytical mood also bleeds into the young men’s actions as they try to create a legacy that will elevate their importance in the eyes of future archaeologists.
Such a thoughtful focus irritates when it becomes obvious that the playwright, not his characters, is doing the amateur philosophising. While the casual thoughts of Gus and Talfryn are compelling, the play’s ‘cosmic interludes’, where two angels in white boiler suits discuss infinity, are more reminiscent of the 80s sci-fi genre than the magic realism of Angels in America. Indeed, while this discussion of the last six days of earth dabbles in the metaphysical, the production is certainly strongest when it keeps its feet on solid ground.
Top Story is playing at The Old Vic Tunnels until 2 February 2013. For more information and tickets, see the Old Vic Tunnels website.