David Kennedy, Susannah Harker, Jonny Weir
With Channel 4’s back to basics reality programme The Family drawing to a close next week and tabloid journalists readying themselves for the imminent return of I’m A Celebrity Get Me Out of Here! the time is ripe for a thoughtful satire on reality TV.
Sadly, Lucky Seven isn’t it.
Pitched somewhere between a broad situation comedy and an examination of the discombobulating effects reality TV has on its participants, Alexis Zegerman’s sporadically enjoyable play lacks the jokes or insight to pull off either successfully. This is chiefly because her Big Brother inspired digs at reality TV are directed at the wrong target.
The play takes its inspiration from Michael Apted’s seminal 7 Up series, a precursor to reality TV which has followed the lives of 14 British children since 1964, catching up with them every seven years. Zegerman’s comedy drama focuses on three participants from 7 Up style show Lucky Seven. But, where 7 Up provided moving snapshots of 20th century Britain and telling insights into class and opportunity, Lucky Seven gives us paper-thin class clichs: depressed middle class archivist and failed writer Tom, cheeky working class boy done good Alan and Princess Di-obsessed stay at home toff wife Catherine.
Shooting backwards and forward in time, the play gathers Alan, Catherine and Tom in the backroom of a TV studio at various stages of their lives from 7 to 49 as they ready themselves for their next appearance on Lucky Seven. Boorish knicker factory owner Alan loves the exposure until his East End business starts to sag. Brow-beaten Cambridge graduate Tom raises repeated objections at being mere “social pornography” and continually threatens to drop out. But his unrequited love for Catherine, who has married a banker and settled in Fulham, and hope that director David will give his film script a helping hand keep him in front of the camera.
Though the time jumping device is a nice idea and each leap forward or back is accompanied by a rousing tune from the era – The Clash for 21, Amy Winehouse for 49 – it can’t hide the lack of narrative oomph. Apart from Catherine, who believably morphs from rebellious boarder girl punk to Sloane wife and back again, the 14 to 42-year-old Alan and Tom barely change, making their subsequent respective mid-life crises feel disingenuous.
Some decidedly half-assed costume changes cardigan here, porkpie hat there hardly help. What’s more, by focusing on 21, 42 and 49, we see nothing of the angsty, interesting late 20s and early 30s.
As Charlie Brooker’s zombie gore fest cum Big Brother parody for E4, Dead Set recently showed, the frequently debased nature of modern reality TV is a rich comedy mine, and there are some genuinely funny moments in Lucky Seven. For example, Alan’s habit of appropriating catchy advertising phrases of old as his mother’s and 21-year-old Catherine’s wannabe Siouxsie Sioux schtick (“you fascist!”).
But what Zegerman hasn’t grasped is that unlike the exploitative fare that has characterised the reality genre this decade, Apted’s 7 Up treats his subjects remarkably sensitively. The frequently mentioned but always off-stage director of Lucky Seven obviously does not as Alan pithily puts it: “every seven years my underwear is in people’s faces”. Still, so hackneyed and thinly sketched are the threesome depicted that, by the end, I had about as much sympathy for their plight as I did for Jade Goody post Shilpa-gate.