Fully deserving this week’s newly announced Off West End Awards nominations (Best New Play – Mark Jagasia, Best Actress – Clare Higgins, Best Actor – Greg Hicks) it is absolutely worth going off the beaten track to the Arcola Theatre in Hackney for an utterly scathing but hysterical take on the worst excesses of tabloid journalism. In his first play, former journalist Mark Jagasia pens a searing, disturbing laugh-aloud very very funny expose of a fictional tabloid. A clarion is ‘a shrill, narrow-tubed war trumpet’ and we learn the 125 year old Daily Clarion is daily fulfilling its remit of sensational, freakish, scaremongering headlines, and in its quest for readership and a money yielding headline, truth is the first casualty. The knowledge that Jagasia previously worked in the newsrooms of the Daily Express and the Evening Standard hangs uneasily. If any of this is remotely close to what goes on in newsrooms, none of us should ever read another tabloid again with anything other than an understanding that we are likely reading more fiction than fact.
The imposing red letters above the set heralding the Daily Clarion at first sight look to augur a serious news champion. However, this impression is soon dissipated as we meet former Fleet Street hack, Verity Stokes, now matriarch of a tabloid rag, and her bottle of wine. Clare Higgins delivers an outstanding multi-faceted performance that is wholly credible, managing to convey a real person beyond a caricature. Seemingly hard as nails with real heavyweight credibility as a past foreign correspondent apparently ‘wounded in action’, yet this is a ‘hack with a heart’ who cares about the people and the paper she works for. And the bottle. In the first minute of the play we meet both her and her bottle – so we also know she is jaded, tired, and world weary.
Greg Hicks as power crazed megalomaniacal editor of ‘Britain’s worst newspaper’ Morris Honeyspoon contrasts as a vicious psychopathic sociopath, terrifying yet hysterically funny in his megalomania. Completely caricature with an absurd Roman Helmet he carries around with him everywhere, yet scarily hideously accurate, reinforcing everything we know, but easily forget: newspapers carry only ‘a version’ of any ‘truth’. Honeyspoon shouts, swears and blasphemes, railing against a corrupt self-absorbed generation like an old testament prophet, but is so consumed with hatred, bigotry, double standards and self-righteousness he does not recognise, and cannot see how his own behaviour and attitudes also undermine and corrupt. An early newsroom scene lays bare a vapid, shallow world where the battle for the lead story is as likely to be about a ‘celebrity’ and missing celebrity dog as anything else, and villains are created to ensure a ‘happy ending’ in the quest to win circulation ratings. But what are the consequences of promoting half-truths and making sure this version of ‘truth’ becomes ‘true’?
“I bet you’ve no idea how many great scoops started life as mindless speculation…”
The genius of Jagasia’s writing and characters is that although they are all essentially caricatures, he makes them human and believable, and he forces us to take them seriously. The whole cast are all incredibly strong. Jim Bywater’s laissez-faire Albert who is essentially only interested in keeping his job and having a curry after work, delivers some killer throw away lines that hit home amidst the histrionics around him. Ryan Wichert is idealistic young reporter Joshua Moon determined to stick to the truth and not bend facts just to make a ‘good story’. Laura Smithers is his antithesis as young, ignorant, but determined-to-make-her-mark trainee journalist Pritti, is full of the confidence of a not very talented but driven reality TV contestant. Coupled with a complete lack of discernment and little natural or academic intelligence, she is easy prey and all too happy to learn and participate in corrupted and quick fix ‘journalism’. And deeply depressingly, we easily recognise current newspapers as being too close to the The Daily Clarion for comfort.
Technically, Neil McKeown’s Music and Sound Design adds a great deal to scene changes and transitions rather than simply covering them, and David Howe’s Lighting Design is effective and dramatic where it needs to be. Anthony Lamble’s design makes good use of the space using two levels. Without giving the plot away the Clarion’s practices and priorities keep us horrified and engrossed. Mark Jagasia’s witty and erudite writing keeps us laughing out loud with the blackest of sarcastic humour, whilst still thinking deeply about the serious issues being raised as a result.
Mehmet Ergen’s direction of his excellent cast has pace, nuance and energy with Clare Higgins and Greg Hicks delivering powerful and disturbing performances at the centre of this contemporary morality tale of journalistic corruption and power. A must see.
Review by Catherine Françoise
Until 16th May 2015
020 7503 1646
Written by Mark Jagasia
Directed by Mehmet Ergen
Cast: Clare Higgins, Greg Hicks
With: Jim Bywater, Ryan Wichert, Laura Smithers, Peter Bourke, John Atterbury
Designer: Anthony Lamble
Lighting: David Howe
Sound/Music Designer: Neil McKeown
Running time: Two hours 20 minutes with an interval
Thursday 30th April 2015