Despite more public attention than ever affixed to abuses of power in media and entertainment, little seems to have changed. “Cancelled” celebrities crop up again in new places: on a conservative broadcaster, headlining a speaking tour, hosting a podcast, starring in another movie.
Maybe it’s because these stories, to some, are so abstract. What does it mean to have someone wield their power to your disadvantage? What is it like when the system is stacked against you? What does it mean to take control of your own voice, career and narrative? Enter: A Broadcast Coup, a new play by Melanie Tait – the writer behind the beloved stage show The Appleton Ladies’ Potato Race, soon to be a film as well.
Mike King (Tony Cogin) is a mornings presenter at an Australian broadcaster, fresh from a conflict resolution retreat in Fiji. He’s all smiles as he enters the studio. This has been his show for more than 20 years; this is his kingdom.
Tait has worked in public radio, and she makes a quick, recognisable study of an AM star with Mike’s conversational ease, his charm, and his side projects (hardcover books on Australian war history, a cookbook with a killer lemon tart). Women call the switchboard to gush; Anthony Warlow is a frequent guest; Keith Urban is a big fan.
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Propping up Mike’s success are the women in his studio, booking his guests and writing his scripts: Louise (Sharon Millerchip), his executive producer and friend who has a long-practiced routine for managing Mike’s ego, and brand-new junior producer Noa (Alex King), who has no interest indulging Mike the same way. Still, Noa is hungry to move up the ladder, and asks Mike to mentor her in exchange for developing his social media empire.
The structural abuse of powerful men looms large; it’s integrated into the world of this play, too. Jez (Amber McMahon), a former producer on Mike’s show, is devoted to uncovering misdeeds: her popular podcast, A Broadcast Coup, reports stories of harassment and abuse within the sector. She has a new story percolating, and this one might hit a little too close to home for our cast of characters.
Tait’s play is well-shaped and gently funny, her characters lovingly drawn and recognisable from the media landscape. Her story cleverly reveals how each character – all likable, all very watchable – benefit from, or suffer beneath, the personality-driven and corporate-endorsed structures that prop up troublemakers and their harmful behaviour. On Veronique Benett’s set, which smartly suggests a studio, bar and luxury home with a couple of tables and shrewdly selected props, we dive deeper into the conflicts that arise out of a workplace that was never designed to be safe, or fair, for its workers.
The play is representative rather than generative: it shows the system as it is, and lets its challenges or provocations live in its subtext. It shows us nothing we haven’t heard about, and it might feel safe – it’s the #MeToo play to attend with your parents or weird uncle. But it could be the thing that helps you have a conversation with that person who can’t quite see why changing the system is necessary.
Cogin delivers a smart performance as magnetic Mike, and King and Millerchip each navigate significant emotional upheaval with deep feeling. Ben Gerrard, as the station manager Troy, represents the corporate arm of making radio with a pleasing touch; he shines, in particular, against McMahon’s Jez, whose focus and determination drives the story forward.
Where it falters, however, is in its rhythm, timing and tone: the heartbeat of a play. The director, Janine Watson, is a skilful interpreter of drama, anger and tragedy – when the play is emotional, the production is at its strongest and the actors are at their best. In scenes carried by Tait’s conversational, observational wryness and media-insider gags, there’s a sense of something grounded that should be soaring. The one-liners are off, and awkward pauses interrupt the flow of setup and punchline.
Rhythm and timing can be tightened, and there’s a chance this issue will resolve over the course of the run. But on opening night, the play felt ruptured by a fundamental disconnect between script and staging: unresolved, like the issues it explores.
A Broadcast Coup is on at Ensemble Theatre, Sydney until 4 March