Review by Carly Fisher
When the Ensemble announced its 2023 season, I must admit, there was one show that stood out for me ahead of the others on the back of its writer’s first great success at the Ensemble in 2019. Melanie Tait’s Appleton Ladies Potato Race made her, for me, a writer to look out for. So when A Broadcast Coup was announced and featured half the cast of her first production, I was instantly excited to see what this fantastic Australian writer had to offer us this time.
Tait is a writer unafraid to delve into the real issues that face women in today’s society - in Appleton it was the pay gap and internalised misogyny within our communities that rendered women less ‘valuable’ or important than their male counterparts. In A Broadcast Coup, Tait uses her personal experience in the Australian media scene to offer a realistic and very familiar look at the #MeToo movement within the Broadcast industry. Much like last time, her writing is fast paced, authentic and perfectly conversational, laced with great humour and clever character writing. Walking out of A Broadcast Coup I can tell you that my opinion has not changed - Tait is a beautiful playwright with a natural flair for interesting dialogue, a great command of levity when it is possible, depth when it is needed, and a commitment to well rounded characterisation. Whatever she writes next, I will definitely be in the audience.
The story that A Broadcast Coup tells is not one that you haven’t now heard or seen before - a hot shot radio host that treats his studio as his kingdom doesn’t seem to quite recognise that his behaviour with and treatment of women in the workplace is no longer acceptable as it once (still wrongly) was. His repeated defense is of course that all of the women were over age and everything was consensual but his oversight of the career ruining effects of a relationship with him for these women is something that he hasn’t just not considered, it would appear, he has not even noticed. Tony Cogin gives this character, Michael King, a sense of familiarity to audiences and offers a strong performance.
Like so many men in positions of power, behind the scenes, a team of women work round the clock to make him look as good as he does. Sharon Millerchip is his long time producer who seems to allow the lines to blur between her job as an executive and being used as his personal assistant. Her character, Louise, has kept his life in check, his scripts on time, his guests booked, and his every need attended to for decades and from the moment the show opens, we question why such a talented woman is still pandering to this man’s every need. How much longer can she take this for? And what keeps her there? No spoilers from me! It’s not the most natural performance I’ve seen Millerchip give but I do think that has a lot to do with the pacing in the direction, and less to do with Millerchip’s ability herself - no stranger to the Ensemble stage, Millerchip is always a crowd favourite.
New to the studio, young producer Noa brings a fresh set of eyes as the resident millennial. Charged with enthusiasm, ideas and ambition, Noa is a highly intelligent independent woman ready to take her career all the way. She wants to be a presenter - a big time presenter at that - and seeks guidance and mentorship from those in the studio, particularly from Mike, whom, though she claims is totally not woke and more of her ‘dad’s favourite,’ she clearly admires. Alex King makes a memorable Ensemble debut in this role as the strong minded, strong willed Noa. I expect we will see King go far in the Sydney scene.
Rounding up the in-studio team, Ben Gerrard gives one of my favourite performances I’ve ever seen from him - and considering his extensive resume, that says a lot. Perfect in his comedic timing, Gerrard brings the nerdy, rule driven Troy, who works as the station manager, to life, giving him not just a wonderful sense of comedy, but an innate strength that seems to surprise even himself. Sick of being bullied and overlooked by those in the studio, Troy is a perfect reminder, regardless of industry, never to undervalue the management teams that make it all happen.
And then there is Jez who, though once a colleague of many in the studio, is now a highly successful podcaster with Australia’s most downloaded and listened to podcast. An investigative journalist, Jez is on the forefoot of the Me Too movement and uses her podcast as a platform to lead to real ramifications for those accused and real progress for those who have, till her podcast, been rendered voiceless in the matter. Jez is an exciting character whose passion for uncovering truth allows the audience to return faith to journalism through the play. Jez is given a biting wit and deserved confidence by Amber McMahon who once again, is just made for the role. Returning to the Ensemble after her excellent performance in Photograph 51 last year, McMahon is one of those actors who consistently delivers a particular quality and particular type of performance that we Sydney-audiences just love.
All of this said and done, A Broadcast Coup was not as perfect as I so wanted it to be. There was something in the pace of the piece that seemed off, with extensive pauses distracting from what otherwise would have been punchy or funny one liners. The text is there and the naturalistic dialogue doesn’t suggest any need for these breaks in the pace which leaves me questioning why Director, Janine Watson, has taken this approach. An accomplished Director, Watson’s choices for this piece seem deliberate and considered and yet for me, sees opportunities for levity occasionally overlooked. The transitions between scenes were simplistic and not representative of the usually very strong quality of her Directorial eye. When the piece is flowing, it soars and achieves the type of show I feel we have come to expect from Watson - fast, funny, hard hitting when required and conversational. I hope that as the run continues, this pace issue is resolved and the instinctual flow is returned to the piece.
The set is, quite simply, uninspiring. Clever in its multi-purposeness, I feel that a theatre as strong and established as the Ensemble requires a bit more in the way of production value than this show offered. Though an intimate space, previous seasons have shown what can be done with this great theatre but it has been a few years since the sets at the Ensemble were pushed as far as they used to be. I hope that later this season we see a return to those great transformations and exciting creations of the world in which the play is set. Overlooking this expectation though, what Veronique Benett has created is functional and proved again that she has a great eye.
Since attending the opening night performance I’ve thought a lot about this show, and have continued to tell many people about it (mainly to get tickets whilst you still can - hint hint) and in doing so, have been questioned by a few about the relevance of the play. ‘Is it anything new’ in the Me Too conversation, ‘Isn’t that kind of a few years ago?’ Melanie Tait addresses this so perfectly in her writer’s note, “I would love A BROADCAST COUP to be irrelevant. Like my first play, THE APPLETON LADIES’ POTATO RACE, about the gender pay gap, it’s my dream it becomes a museum piece of theatre.”
Realistically, though we have come a long way from the early days of the 2017 Me Too Movement, we are, as a society, FAR from the end of this conversation and seemingly decades away still from a play like this being irrelevant.
So until that day comes, lets hope that talented playwrights like Tait continue to bring us new ways to prove why the Arts is an important vehicle for conversations that lead to change.
Image Credit: Prudence Upton