Do any of these headlines ring a bell?
HORROR AS IMMIGRANTS BARBECUE LLAMA AT PETTING ZOO
WHITES IN MINORITY BY 2020
NOW PAEDOPHILES IN BURQUAS STALK OUR KIDS
WHITE SUICIDE BOMBER IN BLACKBURN MOSQUE HORROR
Welcome to the rancid world of the Clarion, the declining tabloid newspaper at the centre of Mark Jagasia's excellent and very funny new play at the Arcola theatre. Non-journalists may think the playwright has made it all up, but I can assure you the story he tells is based on reality. Has anyone looked at the Daily Express recently? Mark Jagasia once worked there, and he knows the culture. His play has a ring of truth about it, which struck me when I first heard it read at Player-Playwrights in 2013.
At the centre is the monstrous editor Morris Honeyspoon, running the editorial conference with a brazen mixture of bullying and humiliation, his Roman helmet in front of him. At his side is legendary foreign correspondent Verity Stokes, a veteran of countless foreign conflicts, whose career is now on a booze-fuelled downward slide. There's a bone-headed news editor named Albert, a perky young intern called Pritti who is scheming to get on the staff, and a conflicted young Immigration Correspondent who is writing an intellectual novel in his spare time.
The obvious benchmark for this play is Richard Bean's Great Britain, which the National Theatre staged last year. This was also a very funny demolition of British tabloid journalism, but told with a broad comic brush and a big cast of characters. Clarion is tighter, more intimate and more focused in its plotting, and its take on what really goes on in the newsroom is much sharper, with a tragic dimension that Bean's play never approaches. It makes clear that lousy journalism can cost lives, but it doesn't just sneer from the outside. Even these editorial incompetents are preferable to the prospect of a journalistic future based entirely on celebrity gossip and the whims of proprietors.
Verity Stokes is played with superb insight, empathy and skill by triple Olivier award winner Claire Higgins; ever since I saw her as Vincent van Gogh's landlady in Vincent in Brixton, she has been one of my favourite stage actresses, and her performance is the best I have seen anywhere this year. Greg Hicks, an actor with a stage record that is second to none with the RSC and the National Theatre, turns Honeyspoon into more than just a dull-witted buffoon. He undoubtedly has a screw loose somewhere, but lurking behind his manic behaviour and bullying is a sharp intelligence. Hicks isn't normally known as a comic actor, though I remember seeing him give a very funny performance as Dr Caius in an RSC production of The Merry Wives of Windsor more than a decade ago. Here his gifts are turned to brilliant effect, though after seeing the play in a very early preview I feel that his portrayal of Honeyspoon is still developing.
The rest of the cast -- Jim Bywater as Albert the news editor, Laura Smithers as Pritti the trainee, and Ryan Wichert as Josh the hapless immigration reporter, are all terrific. I haven't mentioned Peter Bourke as the unctuous emissary of the Clarion's owner, a Cypriot tax exile named Benny, and John Atterbury who plays a splendid cameo as Dickie, the resident astrologer. All these characters have real depth. The writing is pitch-perfect, with lots of one-liners that are bang on target. Arcola artistic director Mehmet Ergen's production deserves a long run and a transfer to a bigger theatre. It can only get funnier and more topical as the general election gets closer.