Let me start by saying, I’m a huge fan of Rich Hall. His obscurely named Fishing Show, a BBC4 gem, was a hugely funny rant about politics, particularly American politics, followed by a mob-style shooting of a minor celebrity behind some reeds, that captured his dry, acerbic wit perfectly.
Levelland is clearly an attempt to lend Hall’s left-leaning patriotic politics some substance through drama, rather than his traditional medium of stand-up comedy. Beautifully designed and conceived, it sadly suffers from its rather clumsy, heavy-handed and laughter-lite approach to its subject matter, monotony in its reflections on a world gone mad, as well as some serious miscasting of Hall himself.
The scene is set in some presumably not-too-distant future where petrol has reached the heady-heights of $10 a gallon (possibly lost on a UK audience, but a figure that represents a 500% increase over current filling station prices in the States). The world is “on the brink of economic meltdown” and the crazies are having a field day.
Hall plays Wayman Tisdale, a talk-show host broadcasting from a shack somewhere in Texas, taking calls from various bigots who all think they have the solution to the problem (in one case, a final one). During his radio show, he is obliged to periodically endorse a mattress company with “144 000 satisfied customers”, which causes a drifter, Scrope, played brilliantly by Rory Keenan, to link him with a biblical revelation about there being 144 000 chosen people. This drifter happens also to have a supernatural power to divine oil which has made him very useful to the government, but now he is on the run and has taken refuge in Tisdale’s studio.
Hall’s apocalyptic starting point is a well-trodden motif – and while it is refreshing that he is not banging the environmental drum around the oil issue, his pessimistic view of humanity’s ability to deal with problems without resorting to violence and superstition is already well reflected in popular culture, and in particular film. Hall’s setting is suitably unfamiliar to British audiences to make for very eerie and unsettling viewing – however, his chosen target of backwoods America is a little too soft, given that the UK perception of, in particular, the southern USA is still very much bound-up with the movie Deliverance. The subjects here are clearly close to Hall’s heart, and this is a brave attempt, under Guy Masterson’s direction, to create genuinely a tense piece of theatre.
Unfortunately, while there is a very interesting exploration of susceptibility to cultish thinking struggling to get out of this play, there is a leadenness to the writing which is as disappointing, given Hall’s pedigree, as it is lifeless. It may be that part of this is down to Hall’s performance as the talk radio host whose job it is to “set the listeners straight”. Hall’s sneery, nasally monotone delivery works brilliantly in his stand-up. Here, it makes for very hard work trying to believe in a character whose undoing is his unshakeable belief that he is right and his listeners are wrong.