Review: Damages

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FEW plays about journalism ever make the headlines possibly because the critics take a dim view of the stereotypes churned out by playwrights and because the public have little sympathy for the profession.

As a reporter I’m naturally critical of Steve Thompson’s clichéd view of a national red top’s news staff in his play, Damages, which opened at The Court Theatre, Tring, this week.

While he came up with a story which proved, ultimately, quite clever, the cast of four were straight from central casting. Has the writer ever visited a real newsroom or met a real hack? Unlikely.

The Frayed Knot Theatre Company are one of the most talented am-dram groups in the area with proven successes like The History Boys and the quirky Titfield Thunderbolt under their belts.

This was equally well acted and tightly directed by Dan Clucas and could easily have played in a professional theatre – which is why it is so heart-breaking to see so many empty seats in the auditorium on opening night. Theatre-goers, here’s the headlines – you missed a splash!

The story involved a front page exclusive about a BBC children’s TV presenter who had been snapped in a compromising position with a suspected toy-boy lover.

The old-school deputy editor, Lister (Marlon Gill), complete with trench coat and East End attitude, wanted the story to run but there were fears from the fast-track graduate rookie night editor that the story may not be as kosher as it looked.

He calls in his former girlfriend, night-lawyer Abi, to give it the once over and, as the play follows real-time in the countdown to deadline, the characters thrash out the morals of running such a story.

Sitting Yoda-like in the corner, a glass of Rioja and bag of snacks in his hands, is the wise and all-knowing revise editor Howard, a former hot shot front-line journalist now bent over other reporters’ work correcting their style and spelling, who dispenses words of wisdom at regular intervals throughout the play.

We’re not really like this. Drinking on duty is a hanging offence these days, even at a national, and most male journalists, including those at The Guardian, would be obliged to wear a suit to work, while most juniors would know enough about print law not to make the basic errors committed in copy of “seasoned” old timer Lister (and since when has any paper devoted one story per page?)

Nit-picking aside the story had a neat twist even if it did little to dispel the public preconception that we’re a bunch of jackals.

Bob Theaker’s Howard would have been pensioned off years ago. No-one revises on paper, everything is done on screen these days, but he passed muster as a clichéd sub editor, complete with quirky dress sense and requisite failed marriage.

Gill’s turn as a seasoned hack was exactly how we’re perceived by the public and, perhaps, 50 years ago, they may have been, but Thompson’s sorely out of touch.

Mark Wallington was totally unconvincing as a young and thrusting night editor. That’s not to say it was a bad performance because all four cast members were superb, but he’d have lasted five minutes in somewhere like The News of the World. His character, Bas, would have been mercilessly ridiculed over his choice of flowery shirt and he totally lacked the tenacity to lead a pack of baying news hounds.

Lyvia Narrabo gave a strong performance as embittered power-suited lawyer Abi.

Damages runs until Saturday. For tickets call the box office 01442 823130 or online www.courttheatre.co.uk

ANNE COX