Playing at the Riverside Studios, London until June 30.
Mining the world of daytime television for musical theatre material by necessity invites comparison with Jerry Springer: The Opera, but where Richard Thomas and Stewart Lee used the form to examine morality and religion, in Payback the Musical Paul Rayfield is content to stick with the heightened melodrama, concocting a comedy around the power struggles within the show.
It is three years from now, and the UK government has privatised family courts. Paternity battles are now fought out via television on Payback, a legally binding, extreme version of The Jeremy Kyle Show.
Pitting the aggressive, universally disliked presenter Matt Matthews (an enjoyably solid performance from the snarling Matthew White) and an idealistic newcomer Joe (Adam Flynn) is the show’s producer, Sam. Sarah Earnshaw imbues her with a delightful archness that makes it clear she is following her own agenda. Her role provides a welcome counterbalance between Flynn’s fresh-faced exuberance and sense of justice and White’s exhausted, embittered cynicism. The battles between the three form the most intriguing elements of the show, and the best numbers – Earnshaw’s solo, ‘I’m in Love With My Polygraph’, being a highlight.
But while the internal politics of the TV show are great fun, less successful is the B-plot of a paternity case involving a young Brazilian man Guilherme (James Yeoburn), who applies to the show in the hope of a payout that will save the business he and his girlfriend (Katie Bernstein) have created to bring internet cafes to Rio’s Favela slums. Both Yeoburn and Bernstein bring a warmth to their roles, but the transatlantic nature of their story seems more engineered to introduce a Latin feel to the show’s music than for any stronger reason.
Indeed, the whole show is almost fatally wounded by a dimly-lit opening prologue scene in which we witness Guilherme’s conception, and a shooting which later turns out to have been important. At the top of the show, though, it is a scene which contains none of the zest and fun of what follows, and its place in the story is fulfilled through dialogue and song later.
Thankfully, the show, directed by Simon Greiff, kicks into high gear soon after. Adam Murray’s occasionally over-the-top choreography may not be to everyone’s tastes, but it does fit well with Rayfield’s score. Both are light, taking the musical seriously while simultaneously recognising the absurdities inherent in the whole piece. Nick Larkin’s arrangements mix the contemporary with Latin rhythms to great effect. After six years gestation for this new musical, there are still some problems with pacing and story, but it feels like it is on the way to becoming a great piece.
Ultimately, the near-future setting feels like it wants to say something about the state of television, of celebrity culture, of the relentless quest for fame at the expense of family. Somewhere along the line, though, it has realised that it is far more important to be a fun musical, and in that it succeeds admirably.