REVIEW: Telethon Kid by Alistair Baldwin

Sam and Doc, his doctor since he was a kid, are attending a conference to present a paper about Sam’s “orphan disease” – a condition so rare that it’s difficult to get funding for the research into treating it. If it only benefits a handful of people, why would anyone bear that cost?

The conference is being presented by Geneuris, a medical research conglomerate, whose presentation reels and advertisements promise the world – but are filled with stock footage and corporate speak. They say a lot and mean nothing. Why have they invited Sam and Doc to speak about Sam’s condition? For the good publicity.

After the first day of the conference, Sam and Doc take to the free bar with wild abandon and end up sleeping together. Sam’s a grown man now and his doctor is hot, so why not push against the ethics of the doctor/patient relationship and have a little fun? After all their work and research, they deserve some fun.

Alistair Baldwin’s Telethon Kid pulls from his own life of being poked and prodded by doctors, cutting out flesh for rounds of biopsies; trying to diagnose and treat his own rare disease. It feels very personal, giving an insight not just into the trials kids and adults go through when they haven’t got easily-publicised diseases, but also into the medical-industrial complex and how money can be the difference between life and death.

Boundaries, ethics and personal responsibility are at the centre a play that is filled with characters making bad mistakes and poor choices and trying to justify their inexplicable behaviour. But after beginning as a satire, it takes a late-stage swing into a more confronting kind of drama and then pushes the boundaries again with its transgressive final scene set in a morgue.

Beyond the characters of Sam and Doc are KT, the voice of Geneuris, and Evie, a young woman who has early-onset arthritis, who is desperately trying to get into a drug trial that might ease her symptoms and pain. Unfortunately, neither of these characters is very well drawn and Evie ends up being dramatic fodder for Sam’s story, when he has to negotiate the ethics of telling her something he shouldn’t know about her own medical history.

The first hour of this ninety-minute show draws an interesting dilemma between Sam and Doc, questioning society’s rules and ethics, adjacent to the world of a giant medical corporation that reads as almost entirely free of scruples. It’s genuinely funny and uncomfortable, especially when allowing Sam to be selfish and manipulative in a way that disabled characters on stage never tend to be.

Actor William Rees plays the role of Sam with glee – enjoying every twist and turn throughout the tricky, complicated narrative. Max Brown is too young to be playing a doctor who has treated Sam all his life, but they have great chemistry and their arguments are a highlight of the play. The script doesn't dig in too deeply, though. The moral conundrum is played off as mostly inoffensive fun, which in reality it definitely wouldn't be.

The last half-hour, as the tone shifts, doesn’t work as well. In trying to extend the theme of consent and coercion between patient and doctor from Sam to Evie, the script feels manipulative and the end result is half-baked. It feels like the twist is there to justify Evie’s existence in the play rather than being an organic development in the satire.

The final scene, extending the discussion of boundaries and consent to a wild and illogical conclusion, feels ridiculous after the biting satire of the first hour.

There are a lot of fresh ideas in this play and the clever commentary on medicine and ethics was enjoyable to a point. But after that, I lost interest in its scattergun approach to the subject matter.

- Keith Gow, Theatre First

Telethon Kid is on stage at the Malthouse until August 13.