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The media, especially the world of Oprah-style chat shows, is an easy target to knock, but Upton does not just set out to satirise the way real-life stories and people are manipulated to provide entertainment and further the entertainers' careers.
Instead, she suggests the range of motives people can have for self-exposure, and how putting someone under the media spotlight changes them. And the gallery of egomaniacs, Svengalis and poseurs behind the scenes in the world of telly and print journalism are so sharply observed that watching them in action is as gripping as it is amusing.
The plot is immaculately, dispassionately structured. It kicks off in a television studio, where Louise (Kate Wilton) has been set up to meet Nicky (Daniel Harcourt), the hit-and-run driver who killed her husband. And then the spin doctors move in.
Playing both sides against the middle is Roslyn (Christina Greatrex, in an excellent performance), a PR mogul who first takes Louise under her wing and sells her story to soft women's magazines, then hooks up with Nicky to promote his bad-boy, rock'n'roll image, for Nicky is in a band and seizes upon the opportunity to publicise it. With ruthlessly egocentric chat show hostess Marina (Kate Elizabeth Ricketts) on hand, the story can only end in tears. But for the audience the mix of good writing and good acting makes for both laughter and reflection..
Alison Mercer - The Stage 19/6/97
Judy Upton's play, presented hereby the Red Room in their big Story season of plays about the media, is a skilfully written and entertainingly hard-nosed look at the victim culture of tabloid telly. Louise's husband was killed by a car. Nicky was the driver. They're brought together in the all-grey studio of 'The Marina Walker Show' for Louise to relive her ordeal. Only she's forced to encounter a new one; Nicky's debut single 'Hit and Run'. All in the best possible taste, of course. It's not the money, the drugs or being Number One that's really important to him. Nicky's a serious artist, he's dealing with his personal pain. Louise responds by launching a self-help group for victims' families and vowing to cripple his career.
Guided by the same Machiavellian (Mandelsonian?) PR, the two are set on collision course (the metaphor is tasteless but when did that ever stop anyone?) for a final showdown - only to be gazumped by Princess Diana. To prove it, there's even a personal appearance (on video) by career Diana-nerd Andrew Morton, who rubs in the fact he's the nearest we ever see to a real person by acting with all the finesse of a talking log. His wooden and instantly recognisable performance is a more telling comment on the media's power to pollute our minds than anything said or done by the characters Upton has invented for this purpose. However critical she or director Lisa Goldman's intentions might be, the targets they've chosen are weak. Because it cheerfully carries on clobbering them when they're well past submission, 'People on the River' is still a very enjoyable and accomplished show. But there's nothing here you couldn't do on TV - and it might even be rather better there.
David Tushingham - Time Out 4/6 - 11/6/1997
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