Who am I? What price, fame? What is reality? These are just some of the inane issues dredged up to validate this otherwise empty narrative. Payback: The Musical is saved by its engaging cast, high quality production values, and the fun factor in its music.
The government has privatised the justice system, and now paternity cases are dealt with on a TV show called Payback. Ratings have been slipping, and the producers need a gimmick to grab back their uninterested daytime viewers. Young Brazilian favelito Guilherme may be just that – could it be that he’s actually the son of disgraced rocker Billy Life? The twist at the end made the audience-member in front of me spit. Mirthfully, I think.
Payback’s music runs the gamut from Bossa to Broadway to Blues, and revels in its disperate sources. The live band (including wailing Latino trumpet) did a great job of keeping the atmosphere energetic, but no one alive could pull off the lame ballads that this show throws at you three times an act. There were occasions when the brighter songs caused the band to drown out the singers – the state of the lyrics I could hear meant I didn’t mourn the ones which became inaudible.
The cast, as mentioned, were excellent. Katie Bernstein as Isabel gave a natural and engaging turn as Guilherme’s devout girlfriend. The show’s host Matt Matthews was given palpable hateful grit by Matthew White, and Howard Samuels had a silly but well-executed cameo as vagabond rock-star Billy Life. Harmonies throughout were rich and exciting – it was great to hear genuine Rhythm & Blues music used to full effect on stage, even if it was often spoiled by lowest-common-denominator sign-language choreography.
The programme claims that this show ‘is genuinely trying to say something about the state of celebrity culture’. It is not. It is shamelessly hawking the worst traits of its subject matter – back-story videos off X Factor, heart-beat suspense music off any old talent competition, chav-bashing off Jeremy Kyle – whilst pretending to be above all that. A more kindly interpretation would be that Payback was always intended to be fluffy entertainment, and any ‘message’ was just super-imposed by the publicity.
Yes, Payback: The Musical is entertaining, but cheaply so. It may be robust in production but it’s inescapably hollow at its core.