During the interval of Damages, I pointed out to the director that the play's central viewpoint character, a revise sub-editor on a tabloid newspaper, was by vocation an old-school pedant and would therefore refuse to countenance the use of the term "wrongdoing" as if it were two words. I thereby demonstrated both that I can be a spectacularly pompous ass, and that up to that point I had just as glaringly misread Steve Thompson's play.
It dresses itself less as The Front Page than The Back Office: it's not about cynical reporters finding the news, but cynical editors of various flavours deciding how it should be run on the page, with the help of a contracted lawyer. The first hour or so consists of Howard (the aforementioned pedant) acerbically splitting hairs, night editor Bas trying to pretend he has principles as well as a talent for climbing the corporate ladder, chief sub Lister bellowing amorally that whatever people will read is ipso facto fine to print, and lawyer Abigail trying to negotiate both the minefield on the page and the network of potentially explosive personal relationships in the one tiny office where the play takes place in more or less real time.
It's appealing not just to journalists, but to anyone with a taste for that combination of forensic authenticity and outright inky thrill that informs, for instance, large chunks of recent TV mini-series State Of Play. After the interval, though, Thompson reveals that all this has just been a foundation for an altogether deeper and more compelling examination. Instead of simply discussing journalistic ethics – both for the press and the celebrities who supply many of the cover stories – in general terms, he complicates his chosen instance little by little. By the end, there exists a fiendishly knotty dilemma: firstly, of whether or not to print a story known to be untrue in order to prevent still greater intrusion, and secondly for Abigail to decide whether to destroy the life of her best friend or the ex-lover she's keen to resume with.
It's a beautifully put together play, directed by Roxana Silbert with more care and precision than I could see at first, and with John Bett as Howard and Amanda Drew as Abigail foremost among a quartet of strong performances. Anyone who has ever tutted, yelled or glared in disapproval at an inanimate newspaper page will love the bigger picture it paints.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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