Telethon Kid – Theatre Review

Welcome, welcome to the GENEURIS annual global healthcare conference! Presented by the spectacular KT (Effie Nkrumah) this is where big pharma and their shareholders pat themselves on the back for making billions of dollars medicating people. GENURIS: Tomorrow’s Cures, Today!

Since birth, Sam Harmer (William Rees) has lived with an extremely rare titin myopathy disorder. Suffering from a degenerative fatal muscular disease, he has not let hold him back from living a life. Part of that life involves being a celebrity “Telethon Kid” raising millions for medical research, spring boarding from this celebrity into a career as a social media influencer and body positivity spokesman.

At the conference, Sam‘s former paediatrician, “Doc” (Max Brown) is short-listed for this year’s GENURIS prize of funding, nominated for his tireless research on Sam’s still unnamed disease. However, since aging out of paediatric medicine the two hadn’t seen each other in the flesh in years. That is, until this weekend when their reunion leads to a romantic night in Sam‘s hotel room.

Questions of the appropriateness of doctor/patient relations run through Doc‘s mind. Sam however is a man with no time to worry about things like that. These issues threaten to tear them apart and Doc is faced with a moral dilemma. Sam, himself someone aided by big pharma, is challenged over whether to reject this same industry which hurts those it’s meant to help. 

To understand where Telethon Kid is coming from, I think it helps to understand its creator Alistair Baldwin. Himself growing up with an undiagnosable muscle disease, he never let it hold him back. The now established writer/director/comedian and advocate looked back at his life and wondered what psychological impact all those childhood pokings, proddings, biopsies and examinations had on the one-of-a-kind miracles such as himself.

So, this makes it clear that Telethon Kid is a story near and dear to Baldwin‘s heart. Many subjects are explored such as the intimacy which forms between a doctor and their patient. Can a patient really give consent to a doctor when they’re looking for help? What about the difficulties faced by those dealing with a medical industry less interested in their boring illness as they are in curing erectile dysfunction?

Some of this is explored through the relationship which builds between Sam and Evie (Ashley Apap), a young woman he meets at the conference. Forced to pose as a doctor just to get medication for her arthritis. An illness not as important as some others but as Sam says taking her under his wing, “It’s not “just arthritis” when you’re the one who has to live with it”.

The core of the play is built around the romance between Sam and Doc. Rees and Brown share great chemistry starting from their first one on one meeting, all the way to pillow talk. This is intensified by their steamy love scenes early in the production. Scenes which are stylishly presented but still some audiences may find gratuitous. I disagree, as whether it’s film or on stage, I believe it’s best to just take the plunge with a story such as this. I admit, I would have liked to have seen a little more of our dynamic duo reconnecting prior to the full-on flirting leading to an invitation upstairs.

Rees is full of energy and life as Sam, but I was greatly impressed by Brown as the man torn between the heart and his loyalty to a calling. Perhaps because you can really feel the turmoil raging within him, it can be hard seeing Sam‘s dismissal of Doc‘s moral conundrum. With Doc‘s concerns often being met with derision or condemnation from his lover. A back and forth on principles explodes, fuelling the rest of the play.

Special mention must also go to Nkrumah whose hilarious performance as GENURIS’s spokeswoman brought the house down. Coupled with the audio-visual presentations throughout showcasing GENURIS’ continuous growth, the play is just dripping with cynicism.

Upon entry, Malthouse’s Beckett Theatre the stage may seem deceptively spartan. But set design by Christina Smith with stage management by Cointha Walkeden truly left me stunned. Many plays I’ve seen at Malthouse feature minimal set changeovers while Telethon Kid sports nearly a dozen! Along with effective lighting design by Rachel Lee and sound by Danni A. Esposito, the stage transforms from conference hall to a sexy boudoir, hospital room, leaky parking garage and beyond.

Telethon Kid is one of 2023’s most interesting productions thanks to its brave tackling of often ignored subject material, an amazing cast and brilliant direction by Hannah Fallowfield. A play both hysterical and heartbreaking in equal measure, Alistair Baldwin’s clever debut of Telethon Kid is sure to prove a hit with audiences.

Telethon Kid is currently playing at Melbourne’s Malthouse Theatre until the 13th of August.
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Photography by Tamarah Scott.

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