Cheered on by her former Doctor Who colleagues David Tennant and Mark Gatiss, Billie Piper gave a dazzling performance last night as ruthless and cynical tabloid news editor Paige Britain in this energetic yet clunky satire of British papers.
Paige Britain. What a name. She's clearly a woman born to her work uncovering salacious tittle-tattle, forever questing to destroy hypocrisy among celebrities and politicians even if it means listening in to people’s mobile phone messages. And Piper rises to the task in a very impressive show of her versatility as a performer. Because boy is she nasty: a sex-bomb in sharp stilettos, forever ready with a winning smile when it suits her needs but driven by a constant, almost pathological quest to improve her lot and flatter her proprietor, the oafish Paschal O’Leary (Dermot Crowley) who treats her like the daughter he never had. Whoever could have been the inspiration for these people?
Yes, the real-life details that writer Richard Bean admits inspired his latest play are well known to the great and the good who packed the Lyttelton auditorium. And last night’s well-fed and knowing crowd were more than happy to laugh at his raucous, broad-brushed attack on newspapers, politicians and the police and the corrupting connection between them.
Joining Piper's character is her editor Wilson Tikkel, played by Robert Glenister, a very old fashioned nail ‘em down operator who may bear more than a passing resemblance to former Sun editor Kelvin Mackenzie (at one point he is on the phone to a Prime Minister repeating Mackenzie’s fabled line about pouring a bucket of s**t over John Major's head during the Black Wednesday financial debacle of the early 1990s). Like our Kelvin, Tikkel also never engages in phone-hacking may I add.
And then there is the buffoonish police commissioner (Aaron Neil’s Sully Kassam) who is easily the funniest thing about this play, with his utter incompetence, lines like "a clue is the one thing I've not got" and the brilliant moment he is tasered at a press conference. And there is Donald Davidson, his wily deputy (an excellent Oliver Chris who also played a copper in Channel 4's TV comedy drama Babylon) who begins an affair with Paige with disastrous results, as the full extent of her paper's corruption comes to light.
It’s an odd play. Clear echoes of real-life events offer theatregoers a chance to find parallels with the saga that led to the closure of Britain’s biggest-selling tabloid. But key events are altered (probably for legal reasons) and the silly names add to the distancing effect and suck the power from the punch. I mean, Wilson Tikkel for goodness’ sake! We are also meant to believe that it was this one tabloid that also uncovered the MPs expenses story, when in fact it was the very upright broadsheet the Daily Telegraph wot dun that one.
But perhaps the biggest problem is that it is not as funny as it thinks it is. There are some terribly laboured jokes that still had some of the audience chuckling away, the worst of which came when a professional cricketer and target of phone hacking is asked by his lawyer if he has an STD and he says "Yes: 0161".
It's way too old fashioned, rollicking but in a Drop the Dead Donkey kind of way, which would be well and good if this were still 1986. As satire, it feels a little tame and blunt a lot of the time and as for moving the argument along or telling us something we don't know, well forget it. Just read the papers. Very old ones. This story is not tomorrow's but yesterday's fish and chip paper….