Popcorn, a play by Ben Elton

Review by Neil Hopkins

Concise OED


grammar¦ n.

  1. ¦ Indian corn which bursts open when heated.
  2. ¦ these kernels when popped.

Bruce Delamitri makes movies. Hip, sexy, postmodern and above all else ironic. When somebody gets shot in one his movies you can bet it will be witty, stylish and backed by a great rock soundtrack.

Wayne and Scout watch movies. Ordinary Americans, Bruce’s latest oscar winner, is Wayne’s all time favourite. He’s seen it many times and only shot the popcorn seller once. Wayne and Scout are the so-called Mall Murderers, serial killers, who actually kill people. For real.

Brooke Daniels wants to be in movies. She’s a model, ‘Miss February’, who desperately wants to be an actress. She can turn Bruce on, and then scare the pants off him, but just how far will she go to get what she wants?

Farah Delamitri couldn’t care less about movies. She is more interested in making sure that she gets her fifty percent of everything that Bruce owns, before there is a public backlash against violence in general, and Bruce’s movies in particular. OK, so she’s an alcoholic, but its not her fault, OK?

Velvet Delamitri is ambivalent about movies. She lives somewhere out there on planet Teen, and although it is cool to have a famous Dad, she thinks his movies are like, really gross, y’know?

Karl produces movies. He is loud mouthed, obnoxious, but he knows money and he knows which clips from Ordinary Americans that the academy are, shall we say, unlikely to show on network TV.

So, take these seven characters, subject them to extreme heat and pressure, and guess what happens? They explode ...

That, simply put, is the premise for Ben Elton’s play ‘Popcorn’. The action, apart from a brief interlude at the oscar ceremony for Bruce’s bombastic acceptance speech ("I stand here on legs of fire!"), is set in the living room of Bruce Delamitri’s Beverly Hills luxury mansion. The plot is simple and effective. Wayne and Scout break in with the intention of taking everybody hostage and threatening to kill them, until Bruce accepts responsibility for his movies being the root cause of their murderous killing spree.

In the production that we saw at the Apollp theatre in London, the actors all do a good job, with Daniel Abineri (Bruce), Jason O’Mara (Wayne) and Charlotte Bicknell (Scout) being particularly fine. I am reliably informed that the accents all sound pretty authentic, ranging from Velvet’s generic valley girl to Scout’s deep south drawl. The comic timing is superb, with Ben Elton’s many rapid fire (pun intended) one liners being handled with ease, and yet the dramatic tension is also slowly cranked up throughout the play, causing you to actually care about characters that become more than simple comic cyphers.

The play is didactic in intent, examing the question of whether violence on the screen is a reflection of violence in real life, or vice versa. The answer is not a simple one, and the internal debate in the play reflects multiple points of view.

There is also the case to be considered, that a piece of work that is ostensibly critical of the post-modern, ironic, sexy use of violence in the media is ipso facto in itself postmodern, ironic, sexy and violent. In my opinion, the play is effective precicely because it is live, on stage, and not at one remove on the TV or Cinema screen. We have become too inured to violence casually perpetrated in the corner of our living room. The violence in Popcorn is brief, brutal and deeply shocking. There is no need for gore - the amount of blood seen would barely raise an eyebrow on a typical tv action show watched by a family audience - and yet the murder at the end of the first act left me utterly dumbfounded.

Elton’s conclusion, as far as I understand it, is that we all must take both personal and corporate responsibilty for the kind of society that we want to live in. We cannot simply blame others without taking action ourselves.

So, you’re responsible. Are you gonna turn off your TV?