by Mark Jagasia
Drop The Dead Newspaper
Over eighty years ago Ben Hecht and Charles McArthur, both seasoned hacks, wrote “The Front Page” With several classy movie adaptations, and despite the plethora of satiric plays and films since then on the press, they remain a tough act to follow.
They are of course American and we in Britain now have had the phone hacking scandal. With the print newspaper industry on the ropes, journalistic practices have themselves become the news story and subject of plays such as the National Theatre farce Great Britain by Richard Bean.
So does Mark Jagasia, first-time playwright, formerly of the Daily Express and Evening Standard, bring anything new to the newspaper office genre?
His sparring partner is Verity Stokes (a magnificently despotic Clare Higgins), veteran foreign correspondent churning out columns in a permanently whiskey-sodden haze at The Clarion offices, allowed (rather out-datedly?) a long leash for her expenses.
On a lower rung are "immigration correspondent" Joshua Moon (Ryan Wichert) and news editor Albert Duffy (Jim Bywater) with evangelical executive Clive Pumfrey. (a nicely-judged performance from Peter Bourke) heading the London office.
At the top of the pyramid is never-seen bottom-line proprietor Benny Panagakos, newspaper, topless hamburger chain and care home mogul.
Last, but not least, lawyer’s daughter, fresh out of a degree course, Pritti Singh (Laura Smithers), the ambitious work experience trainee determined not to be sidelined.
TLT’s automotive companion surprisingly confessed to always having dreamed of being an intrepid reporter stepping into the shoes of an elegant foreign correspondent like the late James Cameron or, even in this often tawdry new media world, a strictly ethical investigative journalist as in Lou Grant.
And not even slight disillusionment when TLT informed the prospective press corps' member that Lou Grant does not exist, and no true hack should mix up fact and fiction, has dimmed the petite limousine’s idealism.
So our theatregoing buggy was especially keen to see what this new piece would bring to the journalism-themed table!
In our opinion, the script, especially in the first act, often had the feel of a well-worn sitcom. At the same time, although the characters are ones we may recognise, the actors up the entertainment value, clearly relishing meaty roles and providing the laughs.
They launch themselves into a striking, updated Hogarthian or Gillray cartoon, with the visual taking precedence – the image of Morris strutting around in full Roman helmet regalia, the louche Verity, complete with gilt handled walking stick to prop her up, the bluff but craven news editor Albert, the ditzy but pushy would-be young showbiz reporter Pritti, all tight skirt and tottering high heels.
The emphasis on the visual perhaps explains a filmic feel to the script and short scenes, proficiently directed by Mehmet Ergen. Despite later more theatrical darker plot twists, this felt like movie or TV to TLT and sidekick rather than a play.
The take-over of showbusiness and celebrity (an impressive performance by Laura Smithers which, ultimately, made us wonder if the play might once have meant to be A Work Experience Girl’s Progress!), the change from trade to graduate career, the selective reporting, political incitement, the deracinated nature of journalism as its former purpose disappears into the internet ether – no one would doubt these are all issues on the boil in the pot of journalism, even if they are well-known.
But TLT and her bonneted companion (who wouldn’t mind an old-style pork pie press hat ;) ) are in two minds about this play – reflecting its own split personality. Maybe the writer’s own experience of journalism has given way a little too much to conventional playwriting tropes and self-conscious literary antecedants. Or maybe the lurches from sitcom to drama would work better on screen.
Yet in our opinion the market for satire on the media and the tour-de-force opportunity for the actors playing the main protagonists will probably be enough to give it a life beyond this run. An amber light for a characterful piece.