by Joe Penhall
Presented by The New Vic Theatre, Newcastle-under-Lyme
and Richard Jordan Productions
29 May – 20 June 2009
cast list | previews | reviews | article | photographs | flyer
Liz – Liz May Brice
Barry – Steven Elliot
Greg – Richard Elis
Directed by Phillip Breen
Designed by Max Jones
Lighting by Tina MacHugh
Sound Design by James Earls-Davis
Company Manager – Struan Sewell
Deputy Stage Manager – Katie Bevan
Assistant Stage Manager on the book – Steve Hall
Assistant Stage Manager – Robyn Hayes
There are high expectations further up the Trent at Newcastle-under-Lyme. Phillip Breen, a 2008 Edinburgh Fringe winner with a hugely promising body of work at Glasgow Citizens and Clwyd Theatr Cymru, is directing Joe Penhall's Dumb Show at the New Vic. In Breen's view, the play is not just about celebrity and the media but also the nasty puritan streak he sees in the British collective persona. The play – very funny and very dark – has been seen in Melbourne and Florida but nowhere in Britain outside London. It opens on 2 June.
Joe Penhall's play presents a classic sting scenario. Vapid television personality Barry entertains what he believes to be two private bankers in his hotel suite. They offer him huge sums of money for a corporate event; he offers them cocaine and makes a clumsy pass at the female of the pair, only to discover that her bra is not underwired so much as wired for sound.
Penhall's previous play, Blue/Orange, has become a repertory staple, yet Phillip Breen's production of Dumb Show is the first time this five-year old play has been presented outside London.
Breen's production is finely acted...and Max Jones's design has a swishy feel. You can well believe in Steven Elliot's substance-fuelled ebullience as the hapless Barry.
A freakishly pleasant 27°C evening in Basford probably kept some away from the inside of the New Vic Theatre last night, yet those who did turn up were in for plenty of hot air too as Joe Penhall's dark comedy unfolded.
While not of the laugh-out-loud light relief variety, its amusing but vitriolic swipes at the bizarre and needy relationship between celebrities and the tabloids certainly offered plenty of food for thought.
As flies on the wall of a swish hotel suite, provided by the theatre's ever-inventive set-building team, the audience looked on in horror, guilt, and curiosity, as they witnessed an unstoppable celebrity car crash happening before their very eyes.
Steven Elliot was wholly believable as television's aging and jaded 'Mr Saturday Night' – the tabloid fodder at the heart of this play whose career is on the brink of death.
Playing the no-longer funny celebrity Barry who thinks he's invincible with his nose dipped in the mini-bar or a bag of cocaine one minute, and the sensitive father and family man the next, he deftly switched between the two giving a performance which was both ridiculous and moving.
Also convincing in this challenging play were Liz May Brice and Richard Elis.
Circling their chosen victim like sharks in a children's boating pond on Mother's Day, they kept up a double act as a pair of ruthless tabloid hacks relentlessly.
Finally, praise should be given to Joe Penhall's script. Gut-wrenchingly uncomfortable and also funny, various twists meant that before the night was through even the audience's perceptions of what was fact and what was fiction had become blurred.
Perhaps this play is one Susan Boyle and MPs with recently-diagnosed nervous dispositions should avoid right now; for the rest of us, it serves as a cutting commentary on modern-day celebrity culture.
Article by Phillip Breen for the programme
A true story.
The names have been changed to protect the innocent.
In 2001 I was 22, living in my University town and directing students in a semi-professional comedy revue. Soon after I got the job the funding was pulled and we were contemplating cancelling the tour for the first time in over a century. At the 11th hour a leading international cigarette manufacturing company stepped in with £30,000 to ensure the tour went ahead. I was delighted. It meant we could embark on our ambitious project and it meant that the revue remained open to people from modest backgrounds, not just to people who could afford to participate. I had a drink to celebrate and a day off to lovingly nurse the hangover to follow.
At shortly after 7am on a stinking hot June morning my phone rang. Unknown numbers calling at that ungodly hour rarely bode well. It was Reuters.
"Good Morning Mr. Breen"
My dry tongue in my thick head returned the salutation. I have only a hazy recollection of the conversation that followed.
"Mr. Breen, is it true that you have accepted £30,000 from a leading international tobacco manufacturer?"
"Yes" I replied.
"Mr. Breen were you aware that this company forces toddlers to smoke 60 a day in parts of the far east?". Or words to that effect.
"How do you feel about this Mr. Breen?"
"Um. Well. Gosh. That's bad, isn't it? Is that bad?"
"Thank you, Mr. Breen"
The phone went dead.
I had just convinced myself that I was dreaming when my phone rang again. It was the Press Association.
No pleasentry this time.
"Is it true that you are distancing yourself from sponsorship money donated to you by a leading international tobacco manufacturer?"
"Um. I don't think so."
"You have gone on record to condemn their marketing strategies in the far east"
"Were you aware of their support of the oppressive military regime in Somewhereistan?". Or some such.
"What do you think about that?"
"That's terrible, isn't it?"
"Thank you Mr. Breen".
The phone went dead.
I reasoned that whatever was happening could wait. I wasn't not drunk yet. I turned off my phone, closed the gap in my curtains and went back to sleep.
I woke at midday or thereabouts, the memory of seven am kicked in and turned on my phone.
"You have 53 new messages"
Wading through these took quite sometime, as I did so I slowly started to realise that something significant was afoot. Every national newspaper had left a message on my phone, one British based rolling news channel had got my number from someone and left a message on my phone, an international cable news outlet had paid someone to find private mobile phone number and left a message. One broadsheet (when it was still a broadsheet) had dispatched reporters to follow the cast to lectures. Students were being approached in coffee shops. Young women were being photographed outside their college mailrooms. I was being personally condemned on news broadcasts by an anti smoking pressure group outside the House of Commons.
"Mr. Breen and his Revue troupe have clearly fallen for a cynical piece of PR from the tobacco companies. They might as well take out a banner saying 'Smoking is funny and cool".
I went to sleep gently slurring the words to the Fields of Athenry and by twenty five past one the following day I was in league with 'big tobacco' and responsible for making children smoke.
There was a message from the theatre manager requesting my immediate presence, as the car park of the theatre was stuffed to the gills with news vans and satellite dishes. It looked like the final ten minutes of ET in there. I was led in to the auditorium where there was a cue of reporters waiting to speak to me. I thought it would be my opportunity to put the record straight, to talk about the subject of access to the University from state school applicants, about how this story was at the very heart of the 'access' issue. I reminded them that I was of course grateful for the money from the leading international cigarette manufacturer, but I wish we were properly funded and didn't have to go cap-in-hand to big business. They promised me coverage for the tour, big articles in August during the Edinburgh Fringe Festival (the sort of thing that can make a show there) in exchange for my views on this subject. And they let me speak. Boy, did they let me speak. The more I spoke the more confident I became, the more strident my opinions, the more sensational my language. I had almost forgotten that I smelled like a dray horse. And the press corps kept a straight face, they were sincere and sympathetic, their acting was controlled and subtle.
The following morning I was invited to speak to a national breakfast news programme and the local news stations. By then interest had clearly waned. The presenter on the regional news bulletin was clearly reading something more interesting on his computer screen as I recounted yesterday's events. My thirty second spot was followed by news of the under 13 district football competition.
After an afternoon feeling like I was at the epicentre of the interntational news agenda. I was somewhat bemused when I went to my local newsagent the following morning. We had made page 6 of the broadsheets. There were huge pictures of Emma Thompson, Hugh Laurie, Stephen Fry and other notable almuni of our revue troupe, a statement from the cigarette manufacturer (one of the few organisations that had neglected to call me), and reams of quotes designed to make me sound like a 'Wolfie' Smith style stereotype.
I was hoping the student newspaper, knowing us all as they did would take a more sensible line and put the record straight. But predictably the hacks of tomorrow decided to take this opportunity to impress their future employers. The front page read "THESPS IN ASH CASH HASH" next to a picture of me looking pissed and a banner screaming "Smoking is funny and cool". I know at least three of that news team are on the news desks of national newspapers writing your morning edition as you read this article.
My bluster had ensured that they had missed the big story. Its turns out that this was a case of corporate nepotism after all, the handsome son of the chief executive was the boyfriend of a beautiful female cast member. To this day I never found out whether it was stupidity, laziness or something more sinister that kept this version of the story out of the press. Or to that matter how they came to call me in the first place.
We did get the money in the end, the tour went ahead to great critical acclaim and even played for a night at a west end Theatre after being nominated for the prestigious Perrier Comedy Award. Don't get me started on Perrier / Nescafe and the aggressive marketing of baby milk formula in Asia. I was fulminating on the subject when we didn't win.
When I met Joe Penhall near his home in Hammersmith to discuss making a new production of Dumb Show, we talked about our excitement at revisiting this play at a time where we gorge ourselves on reductive tabloid sensationalism more greedily than ever. We discussed our worry that after Jade Goody dying live on television, Michael Barrymore finding a body in his swimming pool and the Home Secretary's husband making a humiliating statement to the press about watching porn while home alone a year ago, might make the actions of our characters seem somewhat tame. The truth is far stranger by comparison.
But I think Joe's play is more than a comedy set in the seedy underworld of corrupt news reporting and 'celebrity' entrapment. It's about something nasty, moralising, jealous and prurient in the English character that creates such a vast market for gossip. An exploration of a fetid collective unconscious. Like pornography, no-one ready admits to consuming it, but there is a reason for the vastness of the market for tittle tattle from the broadsheets to the 'shock-monkeys'. The play explores a deep rooted unspoken hypocritical puritanism in the British that is poured on to the pages of our newspapers, that twitches at net curtains and delights in passing moral judgement on others. If our newspapers are any guide we are a culture that rejoices in schadenfreude and is a stranger to complexity.
The daring observation at the heart of Joe's play is that if we wanted to read about famous people, we'd put them on the front page of our newspapers and magazines, but it's our collective delight in bitching about our neighbours that makes Jacqui Smith's husband's unfortunate wank a front page story. If we wanted news we'd read it rather than a stream of opinion dressed up as news. In Dumb Show Barry says "If Jesus Christ were alive today, they'd be going through his bins", they'd also be door stepping his mum in Nazareth.
The play explores the dance between the media, it's subjects and its consumers. No one really cares what the truth is, as long as the story is good, as long as it plays to our prejudices and doesn't demand us to think. God forbid that I should buy a newspaper that I disagreed with.
Charlie Brooker brilliantly remarked that Sky News and BBC News 24 gave full unedited coverage to Jack Tweedy's funeral oration over the coffin of Jade Goody yet the same two channels did not broadcast one word from the speeches in protest at the Iraq war which nearly 2 million people attended. Neither was one word of the G20 speeches appealing for a different approach to politics broadcast. Terry Johnson, the first person to direct Dumb Show wrote of these characters that "they are all lying, all of the time", the journalists, the people they write about and the people that read it. "They are all lying all of the time" that's important to remember. Because they are.
It's strange to think that despite the number of free boxes of cigarettes I could have smoked back in 2001 I never took it up. I'd have liked to. My lungs just can't handle it. But I'm afraid that as much as I want to, I just can't kick the habit of my daily newspaper.
Steven Elliot as Barry, Liz May Brice as Liz. Photo: Andrew Billington
Steven Elliot as Barry and detail from Max Jones' under stage bathroom. Photo: Andrew Billington
Steven Elliot as Barry, Liz May Brice as Liz. Photo: Andrew Billington
Steve Elliot as Barry, Richard Elis as Greg and Liz May brice as Liz. Photo: Andrew Billington
Steven Elliot as Barry, Richard Elis as Greg and Liz May Brice as Liz. Photo: Andrew Billington
Steven Elliot as Barry, Richard Elis as Greg. Photo: Andrew Billington
Liz May Brice as Liz. Photo: Andrew Billington
Richard Elis as Greg. Photo: Andrew Billington
Steven Elliot as Barry. Photo: Andrew Billington
Steven Elliot as Barry Liz May Brice as Liz. Photo: Andrew Billington
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