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Payback – Riverside Studios, London

Writer: Paul Rayfield

Director: Simon Greiff

Reviewer: Kat Pope

[rating:4]

Payback-jpgThere are just two problems with Payback. Firstly there’s the Swiss cheese-like plot, and secondly, no matter how far it gets onto a bigger stage, it will always have the Jerry Springer: The Opera comparison hanging over its head. That said, it’s actually an all-round little smasher of a show.

It’s 1997 and we see a (huge for the size of the production) video screen showing clips of the news, while two people bonk in darkness on the floor. Lights up; kerfuffle with a pap; a song; a shot; lights down. It’s 2016 and we’re on College Green where an MP is explaining why his government has seen fit to privatise paternity claim settlements and farm them out to a ghastly morning TV show called Payback (tagline ‘You Play – You Pay’). How, you may wonder, does one show cope with all the claims? And where does the £100,000 compensation paid to the child come from when the dad’s are usually deadbeat, baseball cap-wearing slackers? Explanation was there none.

Fronted by suited slimeball Matt Matthews (Matt White), and starring Polly the Lie-detector Chair, the show is losing ratings hand over fist and the hard-nosed, deliciously vampish producer Sam (Sarah Earnshaw) desperately wants shot of Matt but just can’t afford to buy him out. Instead, they trade insults in a most unprofessional but highly entertaining manner, while production assistant Joe (Adam Flynn) tries to keep the peace.

Meanwhile, in the favelas of Brazil, a young couple are trying to make a go of their internet cafe business and failing. Guilherme (James Yeoburn), an orphan, sees Payback on the net and decides to write in. Isabel (Katie Bernstein), his girlfriend, isn’t happy but soon he’s off to the UK when his story gets picked up by Joe who seems to think that Guilherme’s real dad is ageing, about-to-make-a-comeback rock star Billy Life. The scoop! The scandal! The ratings!!

So far so rip-off Jeremy Kyle meets X-Factor sob story…..on paper. But on stage it takes on a freshness and innocence that transcends its cultural references, due in no small part to the original songs written by Paul Rayfield (who, in fact, wrote the whole show). From zippy jazz numbers through knees-up music hall to the more familiar musical theatre numbers, the songs are just the right length in all the right places with smart, knowing and funny lyrics. Even the ballads were good (and that’s coming from someone who usually groans at the opening notes) and credit is due to the invisible five piece band.

The parallel stories are interwoven nicely, although the set changes are a little clunky. Bernstein makes a loveable Isabel, although Yeoburn’s voice fails to match hers in the duets. His Brazilian accent is a little shonky too, but they fit together nicely and you believe in them as a couple. On the other side of the Atlantic, White, bearing an uncanny resemblance to William H. Macy, makes a supremely confident, confrontational and unctuous host, while Earnshaw as equally self-serving Sam, is the bitch from hell and in her expressions and her voice, was note perfect. She’s a star in the making.

Billy Life’s entrance should have been spectacular but Samuels’ voice didn’t quite carry enough in the small Riverside Studio space. It was like a lion opening its mouth and a soft mew emerging, but it got better and stronger as his opening song, full of camp surprises, progressed.

Even the demi-smart among the audience must have guessed what was coming next, although of course your reviewer didn’t until it was upon her. There’s no great mystery to the plot. It’s laid out bare from the very beginning if you look closely but this production, both developed and directed by Simon Greiff, is such a charm of a musical that the holes in its socks won’t bother you. And did I mention it’s belly-laugh funny? No? Well, it is.

Photo: Phil O’Connor, Sportive Photo Limited

Runs until 30th June

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