Review by Harry Bower
If it were the end of the world, and you were the only one left – what would you do? It’s a question many of us might have pondered more recently than we’d care to admit, as we emerge from a post-pandemic lockdown world. In End Of The World FM, a radio Host is faced with that exact reality. A one man show, it dives into the mind of a person relieved of their inhibitions. Everyone is dead, and so he can say whatever he likes; nobody is listening. In the space of an hour we witness fifteen years of isolating pain, loneliness, and crippling anxiety, flexing the Host’s resilience and pushing them to the limit of emotional trauma.
Some people might call radio hosts annoying. They talk in ridiculous voices, forced pronunciations, and play sound effects at inappropriate moments. In that regard, writer-performer Kevin Martin Murphy has nailed their role. In fact as a functional exercise in radio satire, End Of The World FM is a remarkable success. We see features like “shower thought of the day”, guests are introduced (actually just the Host using a funny voice), there are fake news reports, and even soundboard-style jingles. Rockstar Games should sign Murphy up to write for their fictional satirical Grand Theft Auto radio stations, and I’m not joking. These radio moments are some of the strongest in the piece, offering a great structure for the rest of the narrative to hang from, and the quality of the writing here excels.
If the concept of this show isn’t yet clear, it is literally one man on a stage delivering an hour-long radio show. To write a three-dimensional character while trying to make a static idea…well…not static, is hard. Murphy and director James Tudor Jones have done a superb job there, both in the blocking and taking advantage of the thrust seating. As the Host darts around the stage, climbing set pieces and chairs and interacting with props, the audience are captivated. While the words come deliriously quickly, Murphy’s body works hard to keep up, flying around the stage with some convincing physical theatre and a series of remarkably good accents and character impressions. I’m calling it here; Mary the contrary canary needs her own television show. I’d watch it.
For me, the long monologues and wordy rants which attempt to act as social commentary get lost within themselves, and I found myself switching off despite the performer’s commitment to the part. I think that’s because I didn’t actually like the character as much as is required to then be invested in what they have to say. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a fun character to watch, but I wasn’t emotionally invested in them early on. There’s a fine line between having an audience on-side and being thought provoking, and just firing out as much social commentary as possible in the time frame given. Those monologues at times felt self-indulgent. That’s not to say the writing is wrong, in any way – every piece of criticism and thought-provoking statement resonated with me fully. It was both delightful and horrifying to be reminded just how screwed up the world is.
There are so many themes packed into this show that I struggled to keep track, so I wrote them down. Mental health, loneliness, isolation, boredom, exasperation, grief and loss, immigration, media control, politics, family and personal connection. Each is given more than lip service, but less than its own in-depth exploration. Thankfully the show delivers on its billing, and there are some dark comic moments and throwaway lines which raise more than a titter to lighten the mood – some brilliant lighting, and a very effective if imperfect soundscape which nicely breaks up each scene and keeps things fresh.
The narrative threatens subversion throughout. I like that – though it does lead to a semi-predictable ending. Without spoiling things, the question of Schrodinger’s apocalypse raised halfway through the show does force the audience to question their judgement of the Host. With the context of the world ending, a man ranting and raving at society from a locked bedroom into a microphone seems like a rational thing. Remove that context, if temporarily, and I found my understanding and judgement of the character shifting. Make of that what you will, in terms of how we treat mental health in our society. It’s one of the most intelligent narratives I’ve come across.
Murphy is on-stage for the duration of the show and talking for most of it too. His performance is one of control in even the least controlled moments, and supreme comic timing. The Host’s soft Irish lilt is enticing and adds credence to their position as an easy-to-listen-to voice on the airwaves,. Each emotional extreme is delivered with the relevant tone and commitment. Some occasional line stumbling can be forgiven when you consider the ferocity of the pace of the narrative and the bravery needed to write yourself such a challenging character, alone and isolated both in cannon and reality.
For me, End Of The World FM is a victim of its own design. By its very nature, a show about one man surviving the apocalypse is isolating and singular; it boxes its character in and forces its creatives to think outside of said box to fill the time effectively without losing audience attention. To a huge degree this is achieved, but where it misses the mark, it lingers too long, and it could be fifteen minutes shorter without issue. My main overriding feeling is that it could do with just a little more hope.
That said, I thoroughly enjoyed watching the Host play with his cast of characters, jingles, and music, and spending time putting the world to rights. I gather this is Murphy’s first piece of work, and if that’s true, it is a stunning achievement. The writing is generally very slick, creative and well developed, and the performance is even better. If this is the breakfast show, then I can’t WAIT for drive time. I will be watching, and listening, closely.
End Of The World FM played at The Cockpit Theatre in August 2023. For more information visit: https://www.thecockpit.org.uk/show/end_of_the_world_fm