Before Network even begins, the Lyttleton Theatre stage is full of things going on. There are diners to the right, a TV control room to the left, a big screen in the middle, a shiny reflective centre stage. For someone like me who loves a show that could only be done in a theatre, it’s a case of ‘you had me at hello’.
Jan Versweyveld’s set may be just a bit too fascinating for the good of Ivo van Hove’s production. Fortunately he has one great asset keeping Network focussed: Bryan Cranston. As the TV news anchor suffering a breakdown, he commands the stage even when he is one tiny component in a mass of activity. His authoritative voice, his physical presence and his warmth, as for example when he interacts with the audience, add up to a tour-de-force.
By contrast, the sub-plot about a relationship between two other characters, which are well acted by Michelle Dockery and Douglas Henshall, tends to get lost in the sea of screens, reflections and general sense of pandemonium.
Like the film it is based on, Network is set in the 1970s when TV news was newer and more dominant than today, so its warnings about the dire effects of treating news as entertainment (echoed by Quizwhich opens soon in London) seem overly familiar to nearly all of us who have grown up with a TV in the corner and come to regard it not as a window on the world but more a gogglebox.
The play moves on to ‘expose’ global capitalism before putting in a plea for the humanity of the life we actually live. Lee Hall’s play, based on Paddy Chayefsky’s film script, is preaching to the converted- we are after all an audience of physically present people watching real humans on stage) and I emphasise ‘preaching’. Nevertheless it’s an unforgettable production and a towering performance from Bryan Cranston.