HOLD THE FRONT PAGE. WITH TONGS.
The Clarion is a newspaper which hates immigrants. And liberals, especially those on the hated rival Sentinel, a barely-disguised Guardian. Britain, it says, is going to the dogs: betraying Nelson and Churchill and Mary Whitehouse and the Methodists. And the Romans, who were clearly acceptable immigrants, since the editor wears a shining centurion’s helmet at weekends. He hates multiculturalism, bisexuals, Glastonbury, lattes , sundried tomatoes, the Met Office (“They’ve an agenda. I don’t know what but it’s there. Incubating”). Oh, and Elvis, whose music caused “sixty years of culturally sanctioned underaged rutting and the fucking polytechnics. None of which happened when everyone went to lunchtime recitals of Vaughan Williams”.
This is morning conference under editor Morris Honeyspoon, played by Greg Hicks with a craggy, vulturous, leathery aggression which makes Malcolm Tucker look like St Bernadette. His Clarion is “an issue-led newspaper”, and if you think you can work out which one – or a mixture of which two – you really would be safer keeping quiet about it. Not that the barks and eddies of laughter in the Arcola, the yelling of Honeyspoon, and the soundscape of apocalyptic howling wind round the Shards and Gherkins of London make for much quiet.
Mark Jagasia’s first play – he’s an ex-tabloid hack – delivers under Mehmet Ergen’s direction an unnervingly enjoyable evening. If you have ever worked for a newsroom “run like a North Korean death camp” or as a reader been exasperated by the British press, there is both joy in the caricature, and an undertow of seriousness if you care to admit it. In the early moments I feared it would not progress beyond a wicked sketch, but plot develops nicely: an incriminating document, a comradeship and a betrayal, a bomb, a death and two sharp twists at the end.
Partnering Hicks is the glorious Clare Higgins as Verity, a veteran foreign correspondent. Once “a ferocious little kitty with the morals of Caligula”, she clawed her way up to OBE fame, hit the buffers and the bottle, and now supports a dying husband by fiddling her expenses and enduring complicity with Honeyspoon’s toxic headlines : “Immigrants barbecue llamas at petting zoo…Paedophiles in burqas stalk our kids…UK swamped by foreign gays”. Having been in Rwanda, she says, “I know what people are capable of when they’re fed lies”; but once sold, a soul is expensive to buy back. Higgins is superb: dry, scornful, half-reluctantly decent, defeated by life, a limping ragged integrity draping her battle-hardened carapace.
Hicks himself gives even the irresistibly appalling Honeyspoon a vulnerable streak of pathos, since he is under the cosh from the proprietor, a “Cypriot dwarf” who owns a chain of topless burger-bars, and his money man Clive, a god-bothering pinstripe (Peter Bourke, sliming for England). Honeyspoon is at least a proper newsman, whereas the proprietor wants headlines about a starlet’s lost dog, last seen in a frilly skirt on Hampstead Heath . “Wandering round a homosexual wilderness surrounded by Keynsians!” cries the editor “England in 2015, a bulldog in a tutu owned by a whore!”. Only the possibility of pinning the dognapping on Romanians cheers up this Farageian Canute. That, and the financial difficulties of the liberal press…
It’s a howl of an England struggling without grace for identity, and a newsprint industry in decline. Supporting characters in the newsroom are beautifully sketched: the hopeless news editor yearning to get home to Braintree for Curry Club, the pretentious young novelist earning a despised crust as “Immigration Editor”, the lunatic astrologer welcoming the end of days. And Laura Smithers puts in a fabulous London debut as the intern: a masterclass in, yeah, like, infuriating youthful entitlement and vacuous ambition. “She’ll be the next editor” breathed a nearby real journalist. Oh dear.
Box Office: 020 7503 1646 | http://www.arcolatheatre.com
to 16 May
rating : four