Theatre review: Telethon Kid, Malthouse Theatre

The moral of ‘Telethon Kid’ hangs on a precarious through line that is tarnished in this make-believe world.

Telethon Kid, written by Alistair Baldwin and directed by Hannah Fallowfield, is a quaint piece of theatre that unfortunately fails to convey the realities it so desperately wishes to explore. For, despite its good intentions, it falls short of its lofty ambitions by toeing too closely to the comedic line without any of the darkness that would make such humour really pop.

This reviewer approached the show as someone who has recently undergone and is still undergoing treatment for a “rare” illness, and as someone who works within the health sector at a board level. So, trust me when I say that neither side of this story – at least from my perspective – is thoroughly investigated.

The moral of Telethon Kid hangs on a precarious through line that is tarnished in this make-believe world, that is the sacredness of the doctor/patient relationship. This happens when the fictional character Doc (played by Max Brown) sleeps with his former patient Sam (played by William Rees), after getting sloshed at a health conference. The resulting narrative gets too bogged down in this ill-fated romance. With big pharma at play, it soon becomes a ménage à trois between Doc and Sam and the company for which they both work.

There are other narratives that unfold as the performance continues; one in particular centres on the folly of another practising doctor undertaking unauthorised home visits to female patients. Such through lines add no further layers or depth. In fact, it’s quite the opposite as they hinder the audience’s ability to engage with the main character.

William Rees is sublime and gives a captivating performance in the lead role of Sam. He interrogates with nuance – perhaps in a way only those with lived experience could – the tightrope of self-agency and paternalism. But this reviewer questioned: “What would someone without our lived experience walk away having felt?” The answer, I fear, is not much at all.

There is longing for a performance that centres the stories of people of varying physical abilities, and this production does that to a degree. However, it misses the opportunity to really push forward these stories by getting bogged down in the quagmire of superfluous details. Indeed, its final 30 minutes felt entirely unnecessary, undoing much of the good work of the previous hour.

Technically, there are some great scenes here; the hotel room in particular is a standout and the use of moving curtains is, for the most part, effective. However, when ArtsHub attended, the work’s technical climax was given away within moments of the curtain opening, when a small amount of silver confetti fell prematurely – this mishap repeating itself more than once during the performance. Lighting states, with the use of contrasting washes in warm and cool tones, are the same we have seen employed countless times before. The use of projected video is effective in earlier scenes; however, its effectiveness quickly wanes. 

Read: Theatre review: I Said This To the Bird, La Mama Courthouse

Despite the best intentions, affording this performance even three stars feels like a stretch. When our sector and the stories we present are so often tipped towards those without disability, Telethon Kid is a missed opportunity to put forward other such stories, and an opportunity that is not likely to to be seen again anytime soon.

Telethon Kid, written by Alistair Baldwin
Director: Hannah Fallowfield
Cast: Ashley Apap, Max Brown, Effie Nkrumah, William Rees
Dramaturg: Mark Pritchard
Set and Costume Designer: Christina Smith
Lighting Designer: Rachel Lee
Composition and Sound Designer: Danni A Esposito
Stage Manager: Corinthia Walkeden
Intimacy Coordinator: Amy Cater
Disability Culture and Access Consultant: Zoe Boesen

Telethon Kid is showing from 28 July to 13 August at Malthouse Theatre; tickets $20-$69.

This review is published under the Amplify Collective, an initiative supported by The Walkley Foundation and made possible through funding from the Meta Australian News Fund.

Jessi Ryan (they/them) has been creating performance and exhibitions for the past 20 years, both locally, nationally and abroad- in this time collaborating with a huge number of artists from a broad cross section of cultural backgrounds. As a journalist they have written for and been published by some of Australia’s leading arts and news editorial across the last 10 years-and was recognised as a finalist for Globe Community Media Award in 2021. Ryan has also taken photos for a number of print and online publications.