Tuesday, April 28, 2015

'Clarion' at the Arcola Theatre

The Daily Mail pumps out an neverending torrent of venomous shite. Whenever I'm in the unfortunate position of reading it I can't help but wonder just who's manning the valves. Taking the paper at face value would mean an office populated by paranoid fuckwits who crave celeb-daughter preteen flesh when they're not furiously quivering at the sight of a minaret. 

Then you see something so impossibly dumb and realise that the journalists can't possibly take this seriously. You reassure yourself that they must just be after a paycheque, swallowing their dignity, suppressing their morals and turning their talents to evil to get in the world. Why, they're just following orders. After all, if they actually believed this drivel they'd be monsters. Right? R-right?

This is the riddle that Mark Jagasia's play sets out to solve; popping the collective consciousness of the right wing press on the autopsy table and spilling its guts. Set in a Britain one parallel universe over from our own, we enter the offices of The Clarion. This paper, with it's neverending anti-immigrant rhetoric, gothic typeface logo, contempt for their readers, porn baron proprietor and hankering for some imaginary racially pure British golden age, is a Frankenstein's monster of the worst parts of the Mail and Express

With the newspaper industry gradually dying on its arse times are tough, though editor Morris Honeyspoon (Greg Hicks) is doing his level best to shore up sales. His sole tactic is to crank the anti-immigrant rhetoric to maximum volume, plastering every front page for a year with: "Gypsies swarm into UK like ants", "Bubonic plague fear from asylum kids", "Whites in minority by 2020", or "Nine out of ten ethnics praise honour killings". 

Crewing this ship of the damned are dopey word-mangling news editor Albert (Jim Bywater), booze-soaked foreign affairs veteran Verity (Clare Higgins), spineless twenty-something hack Josh (Ryan Wichert) and work experience celebrity columnist Pritti (Laura Smithers). 

Over the course of two hours we'll see triumph slowly morph into paranoia. With scandal brewing and the industry teetering on the edge of oblivion, a situation arises that could kill off this venerable newspaper for good. Individual journalists undergo crises of conscience, each having to deal with their involvement in a newspaper that they know full well makes the world a shittier place to live in.

Greg Hicks as Morris Honeyspoon
Most obviously eye-catching is Greg Hick's megalomaniacal editor. With ramrod straight posture and flesh stretched drum-skin tight around his skull he's a genuinely intimidating presence. There's a terrifying self-confidence to the way he carries himself, borne of a lifetime spent learning the precise ways to intimidate and bully those around him. Worse, he's risen to a position where he can effortlessly get away with almost anything he wants.

Morris is cut from similar cloth to Armando Iannucci's Malcolm Tucker, combining towering, foul-mouthed rage with an unexpected sincerity. Of all the characters in Clarion, Morris is the one true believer, devoted to his ideal of an unspoilt, paradise Britannia and determined to use The Clarion to restore it. The play gradually builds up his marvellously bonkers, Hitler-esque rant: 
"Who's right about multiculturalism? I am. It's torn this country to pieces. Who's right about pornography? I am - we're a bloodless land of spermatically depleted masturbators. The liberals betrayed England. And immigration, oh God, yes, immigration, who's right about immigration...?"
He's a caricature, but one with a nugget of truth lurking in his core - a kind of 'essence of Dacre'. The other characters are similarly well-defined; with the gradual physical and moral decline of Claire Higgins' Verity portrayed beautifully, but Morris Honeyspoon is a gift of a character and Greg Hicks dominates throughout.

Clarion never stops being funny; the dialogue nimble, all the performers possessing enviable comic timing. It's a far superior play to Richard Bean's Great Britain, which covers similar territory to lesser effect. That said there's still a couple of flies in the ointment: in the climactic scenes the plot throws out a few too many soap operatic revelations, gently descending from excellence into mere greatness. 

There's too much weight on the shoulders of these characters, simultaneously represent ing trends in British journalism, referencing and paroding individual newspaper personalities and stoking our interest as people in their own right. The first two are achieved effortlessly, the last is where we stumble - it's difficult to care who impregnated whom and so on.

Quibbling aside, Clarion is a superior piece of drama, almost scary in the methodical way it picks apart the Daily Mail's psychology. Greg Hicks is superb, though supported by a wonderful cast with no weak links. My personal cherry on the cake was my home town of Pontypridd getting a name check early in the play - an inclusion that proved to be a portent of gret things to come.


Clarion is at the Arcola Theatre, Dalston until 16th May. Tickets here.

All photos by Simon Annand.

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